Thursday, July 15, 2010

Vatican moved to fast-track investigations into paedophile priests

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican Thursday moved to fast-track investigations into paedophile priests amid a global scandal but drew criticism for sidestepping the issue of turning abusers in to the courts.

Announcing the measures in a bid to fend off accusations of high-level complacency, the Roman Catholic Church moved to accelerate internal investigations and extended by a decade the statute of limitations in abuse cases.

The raft of new rules contains "more rapid procedures to deal with the most urgent and serious situations more effectively," the Vatican said in a statement.

But they notably do not deal with handing abusers over to civil criminal authorities, a key demand of advocacy groups.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the rules were part of Church law and thus "exclusively concern the Church, (while) compliance with civil law" was already an instruction contained in guidelines published in April at the height of the abuse scandals sweeping the Church.

"Critics will say (the Vatican is) rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Vatican expert John Allen of the U.S.-based National Catholic Reporter.

"Their point of view is that the system is basically working and they are just tweaking it," Allen told AFP, adding: "It will be another chapter in the disconnect between the way the Vatican sees the problem and the way the critics see it."

One of the most outspoken victims' support groups, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was quick to slam the new rules, issuing a statement saying they could be "summed up in three words: missing the boat."

"Clergy sex crimes must be reported to police and the Vatican must make this a binding policy that is uniformly enforced," SNAP executive David Clohessy told AFP. "Today's action doesn't do that."

He added: "There is a blindness and an arrogance in the Church hierarchy that assumes and insists that even horrific crimes should be dealt with secretly and internally, and by biased amateurs in chancery offices instead of independent professionals in law enforcement."

Internal Church investigations will remain behind closed doors "in order to protect the dignity of everyone involved," Lombardi said of a decision that SNAP called "extremely disappointing and reckless."

The accelerated procedures provide for an "extra-judicial decree" or referring the most serious cases directly to the pope with a view to defrocking offending priests, Lombardi told a press briefing.

SNAP responded: "Defrocking a predator, by definition, is too late. Severe harm has already been done. So the focus must be on the front end, not the back end, of the crisis."

Clohessy added: "It should be about prevention, not punishment."

The new rules mainly update a 2001 document — signed by Pope Benedict XVI's predecessor John Paul II — dealing with "serious crimes."

That text was prepared by Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the Vatican's chief moral enforcer as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

Paedophile priest scandals and allegations of high-level cover-ups have surged again since last year and rocked the Catholic Church in Europe and the United States.

The pope himself has faced allegations that, as archbishop of Munich and later as the head of the CDF, he helped to protect predator priests.

Benedict has accepted a number of resignations by bishops in recent months, notably in Ireland where revelations emerged last November of widespread abuse, in many cases stretching back decades.

The new rules extend the statute of limitations in abuse cases to 20 years after the victim's 18th birthday, from the previous 10 years under canon law.

The scandals snowballed with revelations in the pope's native Germany, Belgium, Austria, United States, Brazil and other countries.

Benedict has repeatedly condemned paedophile priests, and he has met with abuse victims in Australia, the United States and Malta.

© Copyright (c) AFP

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