By NICOLE WINFIELD (AP)
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican issued a new set of norms Thursday to respond to the worldwide clerical abuse scandal, cracking down on priests who rape and molest minors and the mentally disabled.
The norms extend from 10 to 20 years the statute of limitations on priestly abuse and also codify for the first time that possessing or distributing child pornography is a canonical crime.
But the document made no mention of the need for bishops to report abuse to police and doesn’t include any “one-strike and you’re out” policy as demanded by some victims’ groups.
The document also listed the attempted ordination of a woman as a “grave crime” to be handled by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, just as sex abuse is. Critics have complained that including both in the same document implied equating them.
The congregation’s norms marked the first major document to be issued by the Vatican 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.
The church’s internal justice system for dealing with abuse allegations came under attack because of claims by victims that their accusations were long ignored by bishops more concerned about protecting the church and by the congregation, which was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 until he was elected pope in 2005.
The bulk of the new document merely codified the ad hoc norms for dealing canonically with pedophile priests that have been in use since the first major overhaul of norms came in 2001 and subsequent updates in 2002 and 2003, making them permanent and legally binding.
“That is a step forward because the norm of law is binding and is certain,” said Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s sex crimes prosecutor.
But Barbara Dorris of the Survivors’ Network for Those Abused by Priests, a leading group representing victims of clerical sex abuse, 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.
“Relatively few kids have actually been sexually assaulted because predator priests weren’t defrocked quickly enough,” 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.”
The 10-year statute of limitations, for example, has routinely been extended on a case by case basis and will continue to be even beyond the new 20-year limit set forth in the document, the text said. Acquiring, selling or possessing child pornography has also been considered a grave canonical crime for several years, Scicluna has said.
New elements in the text, as first reported last week by The Associated Press, include treating priests who sexually abuse 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 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 dismissed from the clerical state.
At a briefing Thursday, Scicluna said that including the two canonical crimes, sex abuse and ordination of women, in the same document was not equating them but was done to just codify the most serious canonical crimes against sacraments and morals that the congregation deals with.
For example, in addition to sex abuse, the document also includes crimes against the sacraments including desecrating the Eucharist, violating the seal of the confessional and for the first time, apostasy, heresy and schism. Attempting to ordain a woman violates the sacrament of holy orders and was therefore included, Scicluna said.
“They are grave, but on different levels,” he said.