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Vatican Issues Stronger Sex Abuse Guidelines

  • Sabina Castelfranco

The Vatican issued a revised set of rules Thursday to respond to clerical sex abuse. But the new norms, which updated a 2001, document failed to satisfy victims' groups, who said the revised rules amounted to nothing more than "administrative housekeeping."

Pope Benedict XVI has been struggling to deal with the clerical sex abuse crisis engulfing the Catholic Church as more and more victims have continued to come forward.

The new rules represent the first major Vatican document since the scandal erupted earlier this year, with hundreds of new cases coming to light of priests who allegedly molested children.

The updated norms extended the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes from 10 to 20 years after the victim's 18th birthday. Vatican observer, Robert Mickens of the British Catholic weekly The Tablet, says this is a positive move because it gives victims more time to come forward. He says there were other important points.

"It recognizes that the adults who are handicapped or mentally impaired - any kind of abuse against them - will be considered as abuse against a minor," said Mickens. "I think that's important because it gives special recognition to the dignity of these people who are mentally or physically handicapped. It also puts the possession or the distribution or the downloading of pedo-pornography, that is, images of people under the age of 14 in the same category as if they physically or sexually abuse them."

However, Mickens adds, that not much is really new. 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.

He also says the document falls short of fulfilling victims' expectations and Vatican officials like Monsignor Charles Scicluna failed to give any further guarantees.

"[There's] nothing in here that polices the bishops behavior, let's say, if he blocked or tried to cover-up or moved someone around," Mickens. "So there is no disciplining or holding of accountability to the bishops. The bishops are not held to accountability. Monsignor Scicluna said they have to answer to their conscience. Well, that is just not good enough for most people."

In 2007, the Vatican 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 grouping two of the most serious crimes against sacraments and morals that the congregation deals with.