Vatican issues new rules on abuse by priests; activists call them inadequate

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010

The Vatican issued long-anticipated rules Thursday dealing with clergy sex abuse, putting Catholic priests who molest the mentally ill or use child pornography in the same category as pedophile priests, and formally lengthening the number of years that canonical charges can be brought against transgressors.

But critics called the new rules weak because they include few substantive changes to the church's approach.

The worldwide church has yet to adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy similar to one created by U.S. bishops that force priests out of ministry after a single case of pedophilia. The new rules also do not mention mandatory reporting of abuse to police nor establish sanctions to deal with bishops who cover up abuse.

The Vatican did, however, institute a policy that angered women's groups: a provision that labels any attempt to ordain women as a grave crime, the same words used to describe sex abuse. Some Catholic women's rights activists accused the Vatican of equating the ordination of a woman to the molestation of children.

"The Vatican's decision to list women's ordination in the same category as pedophiles and rapists is appalling, offensive, and a wake-up call for all Catholics around the world," said Erin Saiz Hanna of the Women's Ordination Conference in a statement. "The idea that a woman seeking to spread the message of God somehow 'defiles' the Eucharist reveals an antiquated, backwards Church that still views women as 'unclean' and unholy."

The new rules are the most significant laws announced since the 2001 sex abuse scandal in the United States prompted widespread reform in this country. In recent months, the reemerging scandal has been largely fueled by cases in Europe.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the revisions signaled a commitment to tackling clergy sex abuse with "rigor and transparency."

One change, highlighted by church officials, puts priests who abuse mentally disabled adults and priests who use child pornography in the same category as pedophile priests. Another increases the statute of limitations for such cases within the church from 10 to 20 years, and exceptions can be granted on a case-by-case basis. But that was already true before the extension.

Critics and church experts say most of the new rules simply codify practices that have been put in place in recent years to speed up the defrocking of abusive priests.

"There needs to be massive overhaul, not mere tweaking, of how the church deals with abuse and cover up," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a statement. "As long as bishops can ignore and conceal child sex crimes without punishment, they'll keep ignoring and concealing child sex crimes."

At a news conference in Rome, the Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, acknowledged that the set of new rules was "only a document" and didn't solve the problem of clerical abuse. On the question of reporting abuse to police, he said all Christians were required to obey civil laws that demand sex crimes be reported.

The new rules are less stringent than those followed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the inclusion of women's ordination puzzled many Vatican watchers in the United States.

"They didn't really move the ball forward with these rules. Many of us would have liked to see zero tolerance made into a universal law," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a scholar at Georgetown University. "But not only did that not happen, the one thing they did do was to lump in the ordination of women in with the sex abuse issue, which just made it a disaster. It shows how tone-deaf the Vatican is on PR."

At two news conferences held minutes apart by U.S. church officials -- one on clergy sex abuse and the other on women's ordination -- Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said the Vatican was not equating the two.

"These were just a number of issues that happened to be included in a document that says, 'These are issues that require action from Rome,' " Wuerl said in an interview afterward.

In fact, he said, the bishops decided to have two news conferences to highlight the distinction between the two issues. "The two are not linked at all."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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