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Vatican toughens law against sex abuse

July 15, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: July 15 2010

Pope Benedict has approved tough new laws on sexual abuse committed by priests as the Vatican attempts to deal with its worst crisis in decades that has so far triggered the resignation of five bishops in Europe.

The most sweeping revisions to Church laws for nine years published on Thursday double the length of the statute of limitations for disciplinary action against priests and extend the use of fast-track procedures to defrock them by decree rather than by Church trial.

The statute of limitations for abuse of minors was increased to 20 years after the victim’s 18th birthday, meaning victims will be able to file charges until they are 38 years-old. Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the statute of limitations could be extended even farther in some cases.

“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,” Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s sex crimes prosecutor, said. “If more changes are needed, they will be made.”

In an unexpected move, the Congregation also elevated the attempted ordination of women priests to the level of a “grave crime” under canonical law. Monsignor Scicluna said including the two issues in the same document was not equating them. “They are grave, but on different levels,” he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Vatican observers said the Pope was cracking down on small groups of Catholic women in various countries who have been pressing for their right to be ordained.

Pope Benedict has apologised and asked for God’s forgiveness for those priests committing sexual abuse after the surfacing in recent months of hundreds of cases across Europe, particularly in his native Germany. But the pontiff remains under fire for not seeking greater accountability of bishops accused of covering up cases.

Reaction to the new laws from associations representing victims was mostly negative.

The US Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests said the new regulations were “like attacking an elephant with a pea-shooter when the elephant is almost out of range”. It said the impact on the present crisis was likely to be “insignificant”.

BishopAccountability.org, which monitors sexual abuse by priests, said the statute of limitations should have been removed completely.

Roberto Mirabile, president of Caramella Buona, an Italian association involved in continuing trials of priests, said he appreciated the new regulations but their association had still not been contacted by the Vatican to discuss all the cases it had raised.

“Until then I cannot believe in the real willingness of the Church’s hierarchies to objectively overcome the phenomenon,” Mr Mirabile said.

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