Vatican Revises Procedures for Handling Sexual Abuse in Wake of Scandals

As a result of the seemingly endless tales of child sexual abuse coming out of the Catholic Church, the Vatican has finally taken action, revising the church laws governing sexual abuse.

Under the new laws, the statute of limitations for bringing a lawsuit within a church tribunal is extended from 10 to 20 years, and in certain cases it may be waived entirely. The modifications also make it clear that the penalties for sexual abuse of minors apply not only to priests, but also to cardinals, bishops and other church officials.

Laypeople may now serve as judges and lawyers in church sex abuse cases, and there is no longer a requirement that judges have a doctorate in canon law. The scope of crimes related to sexual abuse has also been expanded; acquiring, possessing or distributing child pornography is now a “grave crime” under church law.

Additionally, the process of “laicization,” or formal removal from the priesthood, has become faster.

The Worldwide Scandals

These revisions come in the wake of incredible worldwide scandal, the full extent of which remains unknown. Most recently, reports have focused on Germany, where Bishop Walter Mixa resigned as the bishop of Augsburg because of church scandals. A Jesuit investigation earlier this year revealed decades of systemic abuse and attempts at hiding this abuse in Germany.

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict apologized to the victims of child sexual abuse by members of the Irish clergy. This apology arrived after two separate groups released reports indicating that priests abused Irish children in Catholic-run institutions for decades and Church authorities attempted to cover up these incidents until the mid-90s.

In Belgium, the bishop of Bruges resigned earlier this year after admitting that he had sexually abused a young boy more than 20 years ago.

In Switzerland, the reports of abuse are just beginning to appear; according to the bishops’ conference, between January and May of 2010, the bishops received reports of 104 victims abused at the hands of 72 different perpetrators. This is a significant jump from the year before; in 2009, only 15 victims came forward in the country.

These are just a few of the countries with recent actions on this matter. The full extent of the problem remains unknown – and may never be known. Many victims of sexual abuse remain uncomfortable reporting these abuses, even decades later. Without complete reports, it is difficult to know just how many people have been affected by abuse within the Catholic Church.

The Effects of These Revisions

Not everyone is satisfied with these revisions. According to the National Catholic Reporter, although the Vatican claims that these changes constitute a major contribution toward “rigor and transparency,” critics allege that the changes amount to “mere tweaking.”

Furthermore, these revisions are of little consolation to the children who have suffered abuse as the hands of priests or other members of the clergy. Although the revisions may make it more difficult for priests with a known history of abuse to hide in the church, nothing can remove the damage these priests have inflicted.

Notably, these laws do not replace any civil or criminal actions outside of the church. Priests responsible for the sexual assault of minors can still face criminal prosecution. In New York, the victims of sexual abuse may also pursue civil actions against their abusers. For more information about legal actions arising from child sexual abuse, speak with an experienced attorney in New York.