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Vatican revises its rules on clergy sex abuse

Victims groups say it falls short; Ordination of women chided

Monsignor Charles Scicluna said the revised guidelines are a step forward, but do not solve all the problems. Monsignor Charles Scicluna said the revised guidelines are a step forward, but do not solve all the problems.
By Rachel Donadio
New York Times / July 16, 2010

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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican issued revisions to its internal laws yesterday making it easier to discipline sex-abuser priests but caused confusion by also stating that ordaining women as priests was as grave an offense as pedophilia.

The decision to link the issues appears to reflect the determination of embattled Vatican leaders to resist any suggestion that pedophilia within the priesthood can be addressed by ending the celibacy requirement or by allowing women to become priests.

The overall document codified existing procedures that allow the Vatican to try priests accused of child sexual abuse using faster juridical procedures rather than full ecclesiastical trials. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the changes showed the church’s commitment to tackling child sexual abuse with “rigor and transparency.’’

Those measures fell short of the hopes of many advocates for victims of priestly abuse, who dismissed them as “tweaking’’ rather than a bold overhaul. The new rules do not, for example, hold bishops accountable for abuse by priests on their watch, nor do they require them to report sexual abuse to civil authorities — although less formal “guidelines’’ issued earlier this year encourage reporting if local law compels it.

But what astonished many Catholics was the inclusion of the attempt to ordain women in a list of the “more grave delicts,’’ or offenses, which included pedophilia, as well as heresy, apostasy, and schism. The issue, some critics said, was less the ordination of women, which is not discussed seriously inside the church hierarchy, but the Vatican’s suggestion that pedophilia is a comparable sin in a document billed a response to the sexual abuse crisis, which roared back from remission in Europe this spring a decade after it first erupted in the United States.

“It is very irritating that they put the increased severity in punishment for abuse and women’s ordination at the same level,’’ said Christian Weisner, the spokesman for We Are Church, a liberal Catholic reform movement founded in 1996 in response to a high-profile sexual abuse case in Austria. “It tells us that the church still understands itself as an environment dominated by men.’’

At a news conference at the Vatican, Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, the Vatican’s internal prosecutor in charge of handling sexual abuse cases, explained the change on women’s ordination in technical terms. “Sexual abuse and pornography are more grave delicts; they are an egregious violation of moral law,’’ Scicluna said in his first public appearance since the sex abuse crisis hit. “Attempted ordination of women is grave, but on another level, it is a wound that is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacramental orders.’’

The revision codifies a 2007 ruling that made attempting to ordain women an offense punishable with excommunication. The new document said that a priest who tried to ordain a woman could now be defrocked.

At the news conference unveiling the changes, Scicluna said that rules on their own could not eradicate priestly abuse but that the church now had better tools to work toward that.

“This gives a signal that we are very, very serious in our commitment to promote safe environments and to offer an adequate response to abuse,’’ he said. “If more changes are needed, they will be made.’’

In addition to making the faster administrative procedures for disciplining priests the rule, not the exception, the new norms also added possession of child pornography and sexual abuse of mentally disabled adults to the list of grave crimes.

The Vatican also doubled the statute of limitations for abuse cases to 20 years from the victim’s 18th birthday. After that, a priest could be removed from the ministry but not defrocked unless the Vatican lifted the statute of limitations, a right it reserves on a case-by-case basis.

Many victims have said they did not feel able to come forward until long after abuse took place.

Critics immediately said the revisions did not go far enough.

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