Vatican mulls sex abuse of impaired adults

New document could make ad hoc norms for dealing with abusive priests into permanent church law

Published July 7, 2010 8:02PM (EDT)

As the Vatican grapples with how to sanction priests who rape children, it has also mulled how to punish priests who sexually abuse mentally impaired adults, The Associated Press has learned.

Canon lawyers have discussed including proposals to punish such priests in a new Vatican document on the procedures for clerical abuse cases which is expected to be issued soon. It's not known, however, if the proposal made it into the final draft.

The instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be the first major document to be published since the clerical abuse scandal erupted earlier this year with hundreds of new cases coming to light of priests who molested children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye for decades.

The bulk of the new document is expected to merely gather together the ad hoc norms for dealing canonically with abusive priests that are currently in use and make them permanent and legally binding. As a result, it is unlikely to appease abuse victims, who have called for a sweeping, "one strike and you're out" policy that goes beyond the current procedures.

One new element that has been considered as the document was being drafted was whether to include as sexual abuse victims those adults with "imperfect use of reason," said the Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at the Pontifical Holy Cross University and a consultant at the Congregation. Previously, the Vatican's special norms dealt with the abuse of minors under age 18.

While Cito said while it wasn't known if the proposal had made it into the final document, he noted that sexual violence against a handicapped person remained a crime under canon law. Canon 1395 says a priest who sexually abuses someone "by force or by threats or in public" can be dismissed from the clerical state.

Including mentally impaired adults in the new Vatican instruction on sex abuse would merely have signaled that it is considered one of the "gravest" canonical crimes that are handled by the Congregation rather than local bishops, he said.

The issue has already come before the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura, or high court: In 2007, the court revoked the right of a priest to exercise his ministry after he was found to have had sexual relations with a mentally impaired adult woman.

The Vatican's norms for pedophile priests now in place have been modified and updated from a 2001 Vatican document and set of procedures issued by Pope John Paul II. The 2001 documents require bishops to report credible accusations of abusive priests to the Congregation, which then decides how to proceed. In 2003 -- a year after the U.S. abuse scandal exploded -- the norms were amended to streamline the procedure and speed up administrative penalties against abusive clerics.

But those 2003 modifications were ad hoc and temporary in nature and had to be reconfirmed by Benedict after John Paul died in 2005. By gathering them together and including them now in a single, official and binding document, they become permanent church law.

Beyond sex abuse crimes, the new document is also expected to gather together into one document other "grave" canonical crimes, including the attempted ordination of women. Already in 2007 the Congregation issued a decree saying that anyone who tries to ordain a woman, and the woman herself, incur automatic excommunication. The thrust of that decree is expected to be reprinted in the new instruction, Cito said.

By Nicole Winfield

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