The Vatican's new sex abuse guideline misstep

The church's tougher new stand on the issue still disappoints -- and manages to insult women

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 15, 2010 8:01PM (EDT)

On Thursday, the Vatican issued its first new policy statement since a torrent of sex abuse cases around the world began last year. That's good news coming from an institution that has played it so amazingly wrong in so many different ways: from repeatedly transferring sex offenders to new parishes to ignoring complaints from victims to just plain spouting ignorant, insensitive nonsense -- and indeed, the new guidelines take a much-needed harder line on terrible behavior.

The rules, which define "delicts against faith ... and morals," now condemn the possession of child pornography and/or sexual conduct "by a cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen years" or "person who habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor" as crimes to be handled by the Vatican’s doctrinal office and grounds for dismissal. They also double the statute of limitations for the church to intervene in sex abuse complaints, from 10 to 20 years after the victim's 18th birthday. Thanks, Rome!

But what the new guidelines could have done but failed to was require churches to report complaints of sexual abuse to law enforcement.  Nor do they set up any chain of accountability for church hierarchy who may abet sex abusers. The Vatican did state that "Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed" in its April statement on sex abuse, but why not put it in its formal norms? And why not make reporting crimes mandatory even in places it's not legally required?

As if all that weren't enough to make that vein on your forehead throb just a little more insistently, in among all the strong words for sex abusers and heretics was the classification of the ordination of women to a "grave crime," punishable by excommunication. Let me think: women ministering the sacraments, priests raping children. Women ministering the sacraments, priests raping children. Still not seeing them on quite an equal level yet. Must be my insufficient ladybrain again.

Writing for the Chicago Tribune Thursday, the Rev. Robert Barron explains that the new guidelines are meant as an articulation of what constitutes "offenses against the integrity of the mystical body of Christ." In other words, they're an employee handbook, not a statement on sex abuse. Don't molest kids, don't violate the confidentiality of the confessional, don't desecrate the Eucharist, don't have a vagina.

It's not news that the Catholic Church forbids the ordination of women. But codifying that position in the same document that still falls grievously short on how it handles its pedophiles is really quite the whopper, even for the Vatican. Well done, gentlemen. Keep refusing to insist your representatives turn over rapists to authorities. Keep institutionalizing sexual discrimination. At this rate, maybe you'll finally drive us away altogether. And then you won't have to worry about us trying to participate in your ministry at all.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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