VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican next week will revise Church law on sexual abuse of children by priests, doubling a statute of limitations and introducing penalties for child pornography, Catholic Church sources said on Thursday.
The changes come as Pope Benedict struggles to control the damage a sexual abuse scandal in the United States and several European countries, 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 people who were abused by priests as children do not find the courage or legal and moral support to come forward until they are well into adulthood.
OF HIS OWN ACCORD
The revisions will also allow local bishops to defrock priests where evidence of sexual abuse is “clear and grave” without canonical (ecclesiastical) trials, which can be lengthy and costly. 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.
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