Vatican Revises Church Law on Abuse Cases

Article excerpt

ROME * In the latest chapter of the Vatican's attempt to come to grips with the sexual abuse crisis, Pope Benedict XVI has approved a set of revisions to church law that are touted by the Vatican as a major contribution to "rigor and transparency," while derided by critics as "mere tweaking."

For the most part, Vatican sources said, the revisions consolidate existing practice rather than marking a dramatic new approach. Unveiled on July 15, the changes include:

* Speeding up the process of "laicization," or formal removal from the priesthood;

* Allowing laity to serve as judges and lawyers on church tribunals in sex abuse cases, and waiving the requirement of a doctorate in canon law;

* Extending the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases from 10 to 20 years, with the possibility still in force to waive it altogether on a case-by-case basis;

* Adding the acquisition, possession or distribution of child pornography as a "grave crime" under church law;

* Specifying that the same penalties for the sexual abuse of minors also apply to developmentally disabled adults;

* Clarifying that even "cardinals, patriarchs, legates of the Apostolic See and bishops" are subject to the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal office, on matters related to sexual abuse.

The Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, stressed July 15 that these revisions affect only the church's internal discipline, and are not intended to supplant reporting sex abuse by priests to the police and other civil authorities--a step the Vatican endorsed in a procedural guide published last April.

Unrelated to the sexual abuse crisis, the revisions also add several other offenses to the list of "grave crimes" subject to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and thus to the expedited -penalties the congregation can hand out). They include crimes against the faith, such as heresy, apostasy and schism; recording or broadcast of the sacrament of confession; and the attempted ordination of women.

The last point ratifies a December 2007 decree from the doctrinal congregation, which stipulated that anyone attempting to ordain a woman, as Well as women who claim ordination, are subject to excommunication. That decree appeared in the wake of several events around the world in which organizers ordained women priests in defiance of church authorities.

The church's current law in sex abuse cases was laid out in a 2001 document from Pope John Paul II, known as a motu proprio and titled Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. Most of the revisions presented July 15 were originally approved by John Paul in 2002 and 2003 as "special faculties," or exceptions to his own motuproprio, at the urging of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. …