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Vatican issues sex abuse rules

New document codifies church’s usual procedures

ROME – The Vatican issued new in-house rules Thursday that it said would make punishing sexually abusive priests easier but that critics declared are short on real change.

The revised regulations allow the Holy See to fast-track the defrocking of a cleric guilty of child molestation and extend the statute of limitations within church law in such cases. They also define sexual abuse of mentally disabled people and possession of child pornography as canonical crimes for which a priest can be stripped of his clerical status.

But in many ways, the revisions – contained in the first major document issued by the Vatican since a sex-abuse scandal in Europe erupted earlier this year – merely make official what is already working procedure within the church. They also do not explicitly require that sexual misconduct be reported to police or that bishops who hush up such crimes be disciplined, as critics have demanded.

And controversially, the new document classifies the attempted ordination of a woman as a canonical crime equal in gravity to molesting minors and heresy. That has outraged advocates of greater rights for women within the Roman Catholic Church.

Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s internal prosecutor, defended the revised rules as an important step because they codify the Vatican’s policy on dealing with priestly sex offenders, leaving no room for doubt on the penalties that can be imposed. Many elements of the policy have already become common practice but did not, until Thursday, have the force of canonical, or church, law behind them.

Victims of child molestation can now bring a case against their abusers up to 20 years after their 18th birthday, double the previous statute of limitations. Church officials can extend the time further if circumstances warrant, a practice that has also become routine.

But the new rules are silent on whether such crimes must be reported to civil authorities. Scicluna said that such a provision lay outside of the scope of the document issued Thursday, which deals only with internal procedures.

A separate set of guidelines – albeit not binding – released in April said that sexual-molestation cases should be turned over to police.