VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican revised its in-house rules to deal with clerical sex abuse cases Thursday, targeting priests who molest the mentally disabled as well as children and doubling the statute of limitations for such crimes.
Abuse victims said the rules are little more than administrative housekeeping since they made few substantive changes to current practice, and what is needed are bold new rules to punish bishops who shield pedophiles.
Women's ordination groups criticized the new rules because they included the attempted ordination of women as a "grave crime" subject to the same set of procedures and punishments meted out for sex abuse.
The rules, which cover the canonical procedures and penalties for the most serious sacramental and moral crimes, were issued as the Vatican confronts one of the worst scandals in recent history: revelations of hundreds of new cases of priests who raped and sodomized children, bishops who covered up for them, and Vatican officials who stood by passively for decades.
In 2003, the Vatican streamlined its 2001 procedures for disciplining abusive priests, allowing them to be defrocked without a lengthy canonical trial if the evidence against them was overwhelming. The rules issued Thursday codified those procedures into church law.
"That is a step forward, because the norm of law is binding and is certain," Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor, told reporters. But he acknowledged that the document was just a set of rules whose application was critical.
"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."
While the bulk of the document codifies existing practice, some new elements were introduced: priests who possess or distribute child pornography and those who sexually abuse developmentally disabled adults will be subject to the same procedures and punishments as priests who molest minors.
The new rules extend the statute of limitations for handling of priestly abuse cases from 10 years to 20 years after the victim's 18th birthday, and the statute of limitations can be extended beyond that on a case-by-case basis. Such extensions have been routine for years but now the waivers are codified.
But the new rules make no mention of the need for bishops to report clerical sex abuse to police, provide no canonical sanctions for bishops who cover up for abusers, and do not include any "zero tolerance" policy for pedophile priests as demanded by some victims.
"The first thing the church should be doing is reporting crimes to civil authorities," said Andrew Madden, a former Dublin altar boy who filed the first public abuse 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 Associated Press in Dublin. "The church's internal rules are no more important than the rules of your local golf club."
Scicluna defended the absence 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.
The Vatican noted that bishops were reminded of this duty in a set of informal guidelines issued earlier this year and that its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles sex crime allegations, was working with bishops' conferences around the world to develop more "rigorous, coherent and effective" guidelines.
"If civil law requires you report, you must obey civil law," Scicluna said. But "it's not for canonical legislation to get itself involved with civil law."
Victims' groups and others have accused the church's internal justice system of failing to deal credibly with abuse allegations, allowing bishops to ignore complaints in order to protect the church, and keeping its canonical trials so secretive that victims believed they couldn't go to police.
Barbara Dorris, of Survivors' Network for Those Abused by Priests, said the new guidelines "can be summed up in three words: missing the boat."
"They deal with one small procedure at the very tail end of the problem: defrocking pedophile priests," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of kids, however, have been sexually violated (by) many other more damaging and reckless moves by bishops and other church staff."
Pope Benedict XVI should have taken the opportunity to threaten bishops who shield abusers and tell bishops to stop lobbying legislatures against extending the statute of limitations on abuse cases, said Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, which compiles data on clerical abuse.
"Of course it's right that the viewing of child pornography be recognized as a grave crime inside the church," she said in a statement. "But practically speaking, no child will be safer because a secret church tribunal finds a priest guilty of viewing pornography."
But Bishop Blase Cupich, head of the U.S. bishops' child protection committee, said the new instruction brings a clarity to the process that will allow church leaders around the world and Vatican officials to resolve abuse claims more quickly. He said he was encouraged that lay people with expertise in church law can serve on church tribunals for accused priests.
Cupich rejected complaints that the instruction didn't go far enough. By including offenses involving child pornography and victimizing mentally impaired adults, the new document will help dioceses worldwide confront abusers, he said.
"It'll send a very clear message to the bishops around the world that this is the way it's going to be done," Cupich said. "It makes it clear and also provides more resources for the quick adjudication of these cases."
But with so few real changes, Scicluna said he didn't expect a flood of cases to come forward, as happened in 2003-04 after the abuse scandal exploded in the United States and some 80 percent of the 3,000 cases handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith were opened.
The congregation was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 until he was elected pope in 2005. Its procedures call for canonical trials or administrative punishments which can result in a priest being dismissed from the clerical state.
Recent efforts by civic authorities to investigate abuse allegations have again cast a spotlight on the Vatican's in-house penalties for acts that are criminally prosecutable in most of the world: Just last month, police raided the Brussels archbishop's residence and seized boxes of documents as part of an investigation into clerical sex abuse amid concerns the Belgian church was protecting pedophiles.
The rules list the attempted ordination of a woman as a "grave crime" to be handled according to the same 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, backward 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 Benedict has said the question of ordaining women – often raised as an antidote to the priest shortage and to bring about more gender equality – 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 trying to ordain her. That is repeated in the new document, adding that the priest can also be defrocked – a permanent punishment, whereas an excommunication can be lifted if the person expresses sorrow for what he or she did.
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. Also included are other sacramental crimes, including desecrating the Eucharist and – for the first time – heresy, apostasy and schism.
Clerical abuse is "an egregious violation of moral law," Scicluna said. "An attempted ordination of a woman is grave, but on another level: It is a wound, it is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacrament of (holy) orders. So they are grave, but on different levels."
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the dean of Germany's bishops conference, welcomed the new guidelines as a clear signal stressing that cases of sexual abuse of children and youths have to be thoroughly investigated and punished.
"The injustice of the past is being cleared, and the conclusions for the present and the future are being drawn," he said in a statement.
Benedict's native Germany has seen a flood of abuse allegations surface, and even his own tenure as archbishop of Munich has come under scrutiny since a pedophile priest in his archdiocese was allowed to resume pastoral work while being treated.
Associated Press writers Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.