Vatican extends sex abuse statute of limitations

The Vatican has issued revised guidelines in response to the clerical sex abuse scandal, targeting priests who molest the mentally disabled as well as children and defining child pornography as a canonical crime.
The Vatican's new rules increase the statute of limitations for sexual abuse among priests to 20 years.

The Vatican issued a revised set of church guidelines Thursday to respond to the clerical sex abuse scandal, targeting priests who molest the mentally disabled as well as children, and defining child pornography as a canonical crime, but making few substantive changes to existing practice.

The new rules made no mention of the need for bishops to report clerical sex abuse to police, provided no sanctions for bishops who cover up for abusers and did not include any "one-strike and you're out" policy for pedophile priests as demanded by some victims.

Victims' advocates said the revised guidelines amounted to little more than "administrative housekeeping" of existing practice when what was needed were bold new rules threatening bishops who fail to report abuse.

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."

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 non-binding 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.

Statute of limitations doubled

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 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 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.

The bulk of the new document merely codified existing norms for dealing canonically with pedophile priests, making previous guidelines set down in 2001 and updated in 2002 and 2003 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 that had been 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 2003-04, after the abuse scandal exploded in the United States and some 80 per cent 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 can know what the rules are.

New elements in the text 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 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 desecrating the Eucharist, violating the seal of the confessional and — for the first time — apostasy, heresy and schism.