The Vatican is expected to slightly enhance its rules for punishing clergy who sexually abuse children, but the new policies, likely to be announced within days, will still fall short of what victim advocates say is necessary to protect minors.
Moreover, the changes are seen as fairly minor concessions in a decades-long battle to push Rome to act forcefully against abusers.
In addition, the new policy, which has reportedly been signed by Pope Benedict XVI, still has no provision for dealing with bishops who cover up for molesting priests and it is unlikely to clarify whether or how bishops should report abusers to civil authorities.
The new rules, which Vatican observers say could go into effect within days, will gather norms that have been in place since 2001 to make it easier for the church to defrock or suspend priests accused of abuse. The policies were slightly modified in 2003, after another wave of sexual abuse revelations broke in the United States.
The "instruction," as the new document is called, will be published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the watchdog of orthodoxy that Benedict headed for 23 years when he was a cardinal. It is expected to formally change the church's Code of Canon Law to extend the statute of limitations for abuse cases to 20 years after a victim's 18th birthday, rather than 10 years after his or her 18th birthday, as had been the case.
(Before 1994, the statute of limitations was five years after a victim turned 18, which was seen as even more unrealistic given that it usually takes victims years to come to terms with their abuse and report it, if they are ever able to do so.)
As John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter writes
, "the extension of the statute of limitations is not likely to have a dramatic effect, given that the doctrinal congregation already has authority to set it aside on a case-by-case basis" and it has generally used that option in recent years in an effort to defrock priests.
The instruction is also expected to include viewing child pornography as a "grave" crime under the church's own Code of Canon Law and subject to punishment by the Vatican -- though again, priests found to have downloaded child pornography were generally being disciplined already.
However, the new Vatican policies are reportedly not going to include rules on how or whether bishops should report abusive priests to the civil authorities. If true, that would sorely disappoint victim advocates and others who have been pressing Rome for some clarification on that issue.
Many critics say current Vatican policies are not clear as to whether a priest who sexually abuses a child should be dealt with first in internal church forums or whether he should first be reported to the civil authorities.
In April, the Vatican press office issued a statement
that included a line about encouraging bishops to follow civil laws on reporting. But that statement was an informal guideline, and one that many conservatives in Rome do not want enshrined in church law. Bishops in the United States had to fight hard in 2002 to get the Vatican to allow them to include a mandate for bishops to follow civil laws on reporting, and there are few similar standards for bishops in other countries.
that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is apparently working on a separate document, which he said was also in the form of a "guidance" rather than binding law, that will address how bishops "around the world can better coordinate the various directives on sexual abuse issued by national conferences of bishops."
But Catholic News Service cites Vatican sources
saying no such document was in the works.
The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer and consultant at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also explained
to The Associated Press that since reporting requirements vary from country to country, it would be difficult to set universal policies in a document that is canonically binding on the church around the globe.
The expected policy changes will come after months of fierce criticism of the Vatican's approach to dealing with clergy abusers, and after revelations that have raised doubts about Benedict's track record on the abuse crisis when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, longtime head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
An extensive New York Times investigative story
last week detailed Ratzinger's longstanding ambivalence about tackling the scandal of clergy abuse of children and his failure to use many of the tools already at his disposal. Ratzinger and the Vatican acted in 2001, the Times showed, and only after years of intense lobbying by bishops in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world to do something.
The future pope, the Times wrote, was "part of a culture of non-responsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction" in Rome that delayed action as long as possible and then tried to hedge reforms when possible.
Critics will likely interpret the new Vatican rules as falling in the same tradition of almost imperceptible progress.
Interestingly, in a follow-up commentary to the Times article -- which has generated heated debate across the Catholic blogosphere -- a prominent canon lawyer, Nicholas P. Cafardi of Duquesne University, noted that up until the 2001 policy pushed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, there was no statute of limitations in church canon law for the sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric.
A canon law issued in 1922 and reaffirmed in 1962 had no statute of limitations and authorized the Vatican to take the kind of actions that it is only now beginning to enforce, Cafardi told the blog at Commonweal magazine
, a leading Catholic periodical. But those canons were superseded by the 2001 policy endorsed by Ratzinger.
"It is unfair to lay this contretemps at the current pope's door," said Cafardi, who since the 1980s had been helping the U.S. bishops lobby Rome for tougher penalties. "He is a theologian, not a canon lawyer, and, like other laymen (nonprofessionals) in the field of canon law, he has to rely on what the experts tell him." But, Cafardi added, "whoever his Vatican canonist colleagues are, they have a lot of explaining to do."