THE Vatican next week will revise Church law on sexual abuse of children by priests, doubling its own statute of limitations and introducing penalties for child pornography, Catholic Church sources said yesterday.
The changes come as Pope Benedict struggles to control the damage a sexual abuse scandal in Europe, including his native Germany, has done to the Catholic Church’s image.
The revisions will effectively make legal procedures about abuse cases known as “special faculties” – which were so far allowed only under exceptional circumstances – the global norms.
“The special faculties have been transformed into law. They have been written in stone,” said one Church official familiar with the new rules, expected to be made public next Thursday.
The statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases will be increased to 20 years after the victim’s 18th birthday from the current 10 years, meaning victims will be able to file charges until they are 38 years old.
This is significant because many of those abused by priests as children do not find the courage or legal and moral support to come forward until they are adults.
The revisions will also allow local bishops to defrock priests where evidence of sexual abuse is “clear and grave” without costly and lengthy canonical (ecclesiastical) trials. The Church will be able to defrock priests in such cases by decree.
The changes are an update to a document known as a Motu Proprio (Latin for “of his own accord”) issued by the late Pope John Paul in 2001 to deal with sexual abuse cases.
It has been prepared by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the department Pope Benedict headed as a cardinal for nearly 25 years before his election in 2005.
The revision will also specify that priests found to possess child pornography, either in print or on their computers, will be considered to have committed a serious offence subject to disciplinary action even if they are not abusers.
Five bishops in Europe have already resigned over the scandal. One has admitted sexual abuse, another is under investigation and three have stepped down over their handling of abuse cases.
Last month, Benedict begged forgiveness from God and victims of child sexual abuse by priests and vowed that the Catholic Church would do everything in its power to ensure that it never happens again.
The Vatican is also cracking down on priests who sexually abuse mentally impaired adults, sanctioning them with the same set of punishments meted out for clerics who rape and molest children.
A Church source close to the Vatican said yesterday that a soon-to-be-released Vatican document on handling clerical abuse of minors under age 18 would also refer to adults with an “imperfect use of reason”.
Such particularly vulnerable victims will now have their cases handled directly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under a special set of norms that can result in a priest being quickly defrocked without a canonical trial.
The reference to priests who abuse mentally impaired adults marks a concrete new element. Previously, such abuse cases would be handled by the local bishop who would have to conduct a canonical trial. Now, such cases will come before the Congregation and be subject to its own norms.
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