VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican issued a revised set of in-house rules Thursday to respond to clerical sex abuse, targeting priests who molest the mentally disabled as well as children and priests who use child pornography, but making few substantive changes to existing practice.
The new rules make no mention of the need for bishops to report clerical sex abuse to police, provide no canonical sanctions for bishops who cover up for abusers and do not include any "one-strike and you're out" policy for pedophile priests as demanded by some victims. As a result, they failed to satisfy victims' advocates, who said the revised rules amounted to little more than "administrative housekeeping" of existing practice when what was needed were bold new rules threatening bishops who fail to report molester priests.
The rules cover the canonical penalties and procedures used for the most grave crimes in the church, both sacramental and moral, and double the statute of limitations applied to them. One new element included lists the attempted ordination of women as a "grave crime" subject to the same set of procedures and punishments meted out for sex abuse. That drew immediate criticism from women's ordination groups, who said making a moral equivalent between women priests and child rapists was offensive.
The Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor acknowledged it was "only a document," and didn't solve the problem of clerical abuse. He defended the lack of any mention of the need to report abuse to police, saying all Christians were required to obey civil laws that would already demand sex crimes be reported.
"If civil law requires you report, you must obey civil law," Monsignor Charles Scicluna told reporters.
But "it's not for canonical legislation to get itself involved with civil law." Victims' groups have accused the church's internal justice system of failing to deal with abuse allegations and allowing bishops to ignore complaints in order to protect the church.
"The first thing the church should be doing is reporting crimes to civil authorities," said Andrew Madden, a former Dublin altar boy who took the first public lawsuit against the church in Ireland in 1995.
"That's far, far more important than deciding whether a criminal priest should be defrocked or not," he told the AP in Dublin. "The church's internal rules are no more important than the rules of your local golf club."
Barbara Dorris, of Survivors' Network for Those Abused by Priests, said the new guidelines "can be summed up in three words: missing the boat."
"They deal with one small procedure at the very tail end of the problem: defrocking pedophile priests," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of kids, however, have been sexually violated (by) many other more damaging and reckless moves by bishops and other church staff." Earlier this year, the Vatican advised bishops to follow civil reporting laws and report abuse "crimes" - not allegations - to police.
But that call was included in a nonbinding guideline posted on the Vatican website, not an official church document or piece of church legislation. Sex crime allegations are handled by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 until he was elected pope in 2005.
The congregation's procedures call for canonical trials or administrative punishments which can result in a priest being dismissed from the clerical state. Recent efforts by civic authorities to investigate abuse allegations have again cast a spotlight on the church's efforts to deal in-house with a crime that is criminally prosecutable in most of the world: Just last month, police raided the residence of the Brussels archbishop and carted off boxes of documents as part of an investigation into clerical sex abuse amid concerns the Belgian church was protecting pedophiles.
The new rules extend the statue of limitations for the congregation's handling of alleged priestly abuse to 20 years, from 10 after the victim's 18th birthday, and can be extended beyond that on a case-by-case basis. Such extensions have been routine for years. Defining the possession or distribution of child pornography as a canonical crime also simply makes current practice official. The new rules represent the first major Vatican document since the clerical abuse scandal erupted earlier this year, with hundreds of new cases coming to light of priests who molested children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye for decades.
But the bulk of the new document merely codifies existing norms for dealing canonically with pedophile priests, making previous guidelines set down in 2001 and updated in 2002 and 2003 to speed up defrocking of abusive priests permanent and legally binding. The document - a letter from the Congregation to bishops around the world - represents a permanent piece of church legislation, as opposed to the ad hoc guidelines used until now.
"That is a step forward, because the norm of law is binding and is certain," Scicluna said. But he acknowledged that the document was just an instrument, a set of norms, and that its application both in Rome and in diocese around the world was key.
"It does not solve all the problems," Scicluna said. "It is a very important instrument, but it is the way you use the instrument that is going to have the real effect."
With so few real changes, Scicluna said he didn't expect a new flood of cases to come forward, as happened in 2003-2004, after the abuse scandal exploded in the United States and some 80 percent of the 3,000 cases handled by the Congregation were opened.
"These new norms on sexual abuse really put into law the practice of the Congregation," he said, adding that it was important to publish them so everyone could know what the rules were.
New elements in the text, as first reported last week by The Associated Press, include treating priests who sexually abuse the mentally disabled - or an adult who "habitually lacks the use of reason" - with the same set of sanctions as those who abuse minors. Punishments can include being dismissed from the clerical state. The rules also list the attempted ordination of a woman as a "grave crime" to be handled according to the same set of procedures as sex abuse - despite arguments that grouping the two in the same document would imply equating them.
"The idea that women seeking to spread the message of God somehow defiles the Eucharist reveals an antiquated, backwards church that still views women as unclean and unholy," said Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, a U.S.-based organization that works to ordain women as priests, deacons and bishops. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have said the question of ordaining women priests - often raised as an antidote to the priest shortage and to bring about more gender equality in the church - is not up for discussion.
The Vatican in 2007 issued a decree saying the attempted ordination of women would result in automatic excommunication for the woman and the priest who tries to ordain her. That is repeated in the new document, adding that the priest can also be punished by being defrocked. At a briefing Thursday, Scicluna defended the inclusion of both sex abuse and ordination of women in the same document as a way of codifying two of the most serious canonical crimes against sacraments and morals that the congregation deals with.
"They are grave, but on different levels," he said, and noted that the document also lists crimes against the sacraments including apostasy, heresy and schism for the first time. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the dean of Germany's bishops conference, welcomed the new guidelines as a clear signal stressing that cases of sexual abuse of children and youths have to be thoroughly investigated and punished.
"The injustice of the past is being cleared, and the conclusions for the present and the future are being drawn," he said in a statement.
Benedict's native Germany has seen a flood of abuse allegations surface, and even the pontiff's own tenure as archbishop of Munich has come under scrutiny since a pedophile priest in his archdiocese was allowed to resume pastoral work while being treated. A spokesman for Germany's Justice Ministry cautioned that the guidelines were an internal matter of the Roman Catholic Church, but welcomed them as a move in the right direction.
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger wants to push for an extension of the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse who are seeking damages in civil law suits from three to 30 years, the ministry said in a statement Wednesday.