RELIGION
07/16/2010 03:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

U.S. Bishops Defend Inclusion Of Women's Ordination In Church Crimes List

By Daniel Burke and Richard Allen
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) U.S. Catholic bishops on Thursday (July 15) defended the Vatican's decision to include the ordination of women with the sexual abuse of children in a long-awaited revision of the church's most serious crimes.

The new rules, which bring together years worth of ad-hoc reforms, had been eagerly anticipated by victims' advocates, who had hoped for tougher sanctions against predator priests and the bishops who protect them.

But many victims' advocates said the reforms don't go far enough, and supporters of women in the church said they go too far.

For the first time, the "attempted ordination" of women as Roman Catholic priests will be considered a "delicta graviora," the church's most serious category of crimes. Women will face automatic excommunication, and participating priests could be booted from the priesthood.

The Vatican is not implying that ordaining women and the sexual abuse of children are equivalent offenses, said Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's chief prosecutor in punishing clergy for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"There are two types of `delicta graviora': those concerning the celebration of sacraments, and those concerning morals," Scicluna told reporters at the Vatican. "The two types are essentially different, and their gravity is on different levels."

Still, some Catholics said it was a public relations mistake to include women's ordination into a document that was expected to focus on sex abuse.

"Sometimes you wonder what they are thinking," said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of Cleveland-based group FutureChurch, which advocates for increased lay leadership in the Catholic Church.

"This is apples and oranges. The phenomenon of women wanting to serve God does not belong in same category as priests abusing children. I am frankly stunned."

But two key U.S. bishops rejected such criticism, saying the Vatican is making its priorities clear: protecting children and the sanctity of Catholic sacraments.

"The church is making a very clear statement that this kind of misconduct (the sexual abuse of children) is not just about violating a civil law, but relates to core values of our faith and worship," said Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., chairman of the bishops' abuse prevention committee.

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, chairman of the bishops' doctrine committee, said the rules make an important distinction between "structural" crimes, such as attempting to ordain women, and moral crimes, such as abusing children.

And while "`women have had an essential role in the life of the church," Wuerl said the sacraments--including ordination--are so integral to the church that violating them requires a strong response.The church's "long and constant teaching" reserves the priesthood for men, he said.

Wuerl said Catholic leaders must work to tell people that the Vatican does not equates the molestation of children with women seeking to become priests.

"It's going to be hard to keep these things separate if you mix them up," he said. "And so, what we're doing is trying to address them one at a time."

As part of the most significant overhaul of canon law in nine years, church officials increased the statute of limitations on abuse cases from 10 years to 20 beyond the victim's 18th birthday, with possible extensions for victims who come forward later in life.

In addition, the abuse of a "developmentally disabled" adult would be treated the same as the abuse of a minor, and the possession or distribution of child pornography was added as an official crime against church law.

"This gives a signal that we are very, very serious in our commitment to promote safe environments and to offer an adequate response to abuse," Scicluna said. "If more changes are needed, they will be made."

But David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, dismissed the rules as mere "window dressing" because they do not punish bishops who protected or transferred known abusers.

"Tweaking existing church policies won't have real impact on bishops' behavior and won't make the changes that kids need to be safe," he said.

In April, the Vatican had urged "collaboration with the civil authorities" in reporting abuse cases, but a global patchwork of different civil laws resulted in uneven reporting. The new document includes no mandate to notify authorities.

The publication of the new laws is the latest move by the Vatican to regain control of the scandal that first erupted in the U.S. in 2002 and then resurfaced earlier this year across Europe and parts of South America.

The Vatican initially blamed the scandal on excessive media scrutiny--Benedict initially dismissed "the petty gossip of dominant opinion"--but in recent months, the pope has turned inward, bemoaning the "the sins of the church" and last month begged forgiveness from God for crimes committed by priests.

(Richard Allen reported from Vatican City; Daniel Burke reported from Washington.)