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 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.
But 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. 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 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 2003-2004, after the abuse scandal exploded in the United States and some 80 percent 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 could know what the rules were.
New elements in the text, as first reported last week by The Associated Press, 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 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 idea that women seeking to spread the message of God somehow defiles the Eucharist reveals an antiquated, backwards church that still views women as unclean and unholy,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a U.S.-based organization that works to ordain women as priests, deacons and bishops.
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have said the question of ordaining women priests — often raised as an antidote to the priest shortage and to bring about more gender equality in the church — is not up for discussion.
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 apostasy, heresy and schism for the first time.