In a further attempt to address the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, the Vatican has announced new procedures for defrocking priests. The Vatican is presenting these as tough new measures, the first amendments to the relevant sections of canon law in nine years.
But in a depressingly usual pattern, the Catholic Church has managed to undermine its own progress by not going far enough. The US-based Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said the new guidelines were,
"like attacking at an elephant with a pea-shooter when the elephant is almost out of range. … Even if these new guidelines are obeyed, their impact on the ongoing crisis is likely to be insignificant.”
For good measure, the church has tossed in a decree sure to alienate its more free-thinking and creative followers, declaring the "attempted ordination of a woman" to the priesthood as one of the most serious crimes against Church law. Indeed, the Vatican has declared that people who attempt to ordinate women are to be treated according to the same procedures as those accused of sexual abuse.
Some Catholics have been wondering whether an exclusively male, closed, hierarchical clerical culture had anything to do with fostering, perpetuating and covering up sexual abuse.
This latest strident condemnation of women’s ordination looks like the Vatican’s attempt to shut down questioning in that area.
Notwithstanding, the new measures do present some halting progress and I suppose it would be churlish to ignore:
- The statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases has been increased to 20 years after the victim’s 18th birthday from 10 years under the old rules, meaning victims will be able to file charges until they are 38 years old.
- Existing Vatican guidance to bishops that they should report sexual abusers to civil authorities remain in place.
- Sexual abuse by a priest of a mentally handicapped adult will be treated as if the handicapped person were a minor and could lead to dismissal from the priesthood.
- Bishops can defrock priests where evidence of sexual abuse is clear without canonical (ecclesiastical) trials, which can be lengthy and costly. The Church will be able to defrock priests in such cases by decree.
- Priests who acquire, possess or distribute child pornography will be considered to have committed a serious offence subject to the same disciplinary action as abusers.
It is always my instinct to gauge victims and survivors’ reactions to the Catholic Church’s various decrees and apologies before becoming too congratulatory or condemnatory. So I’ll give one of the survivors the last word.
"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."