VATICAN CITY — In its most significant revision to church law since a sex abuse crisis hit the United States a decade ago and roared back from remission in Europe this spring, the Vaticanon Thursday issued new internal rules making it easier to discipline priests who have sexually abused minors.
But in a move that infuriated victims’ groups and put United States bishops on the defensive, it also codified “the attempted ordination of women” to the priesthood as one of the church’s most grave crimes, along with heresy, schism and pedophilia.
In its revision, the Vatican doubled the statute of limitations in abuse cases from 10 to 20 years from the victim’s 18th birthday and added possession of child pornography and the sexual abuse of mentally disabled adults to the list of crimes handled by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In a statement, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the changes were a sign of the church’s commitment to addressing child sex abuse with “rigor and transparency.”
But the revision fell short of the hopes of many advocates for victims of priestly abuse: It does not contain measures to hold bishops accountable for abuse by priests on their watch, nor does it require mandatory reporting of sex abuse to civil authorities even in countries where it is not required by civil law.
Instead, the changes codify as law special procedures that allow the Vatican to try priests accused of child sex abuse using faster juridical procedures rather than full ecclesiastical trials, making such procedures the rule, not the exception.
“This a very important step from the point of view of canon law,” the Vatican’s internal prosecutor, Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, said at a news conference at the Vatican on Thursday, his first public appearance since the sex abuse crisis erupted this spring.
“But a document is always a document. It does not solve all the problems,” added Monsignor Scicluna, who oversees all abuse cases brought to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith. “It is a very important instrument, but it is the way you use the instrument that is going to have the real effect on the church.”
For years, bishops complained to the Vatican about confusion over how to handle sex abuse cases. In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a document saying all credible allegations of abuse by priests should be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the document was not widely diffused, and the confusion remained.
In April, the Vatican for the first time published online guidelines that it said it advised bishops to follow in handling abuse, including reporting all cases to the Vatican and to civil authorities in countries that require mandatory reporting of crimes. But those guidelines do not hold the force of law.
Critics immediately said the revisions announced on Thursday did not go far enough.
“History has shown that church abuse policies are rarely followed. But even if these new guidelines are obeyed, their impact on the ongoing crisis is likely to be insignificant. Defrocking a predator, by definition, is too late,” SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement.
Bishopaccountability.org, which tracks cases of sex abuse by priests cases worldwide, said the changes “amount to administrative tinkering of a secretive internal process.”
“Given his authority, Benedict could implement meaningful change,” the group said in a statement. “He could direct bishops to report every allegation of child sexual abuse to the police, regardless of whether civil law requires them to do so. He could threaten punishment of any bishop or church official who enables or fails to stop a child-molesting priest.”
It added, “It’s disturbing that the new rules merely will extend the statutes of limitations rather than eliminate them altogether.”
Many victims have said they did not feel able to come forward until long after the abuse took place. In extending the statute of limitations for cases from 10 to 20 years from the victim’s 18th birthday, Monsignor Scicluna said the Vatican would retain the ability to lift the statute of limitations on a case-by-case basis.
Monsignor Scicluna also attempted to blunt the impact of the Vatican’s linking of the attempted ordination of women with grave crimes like pedophilia.
“Sexual abuse and pornography are more grave dealings, they are an egregious violation of moral law,” he said. “Attempted ordination of women is grave, but on another level; it is a wound that is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacramental orders.”
Yet in what appeared to be an acknowledgment of concern among American Catholics, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was expected to hold a news conference on the issue later on Thursday.
The revision announced on Thursday codifies a 1997 ruling that made attempting to ordain women as priests a crime punishable with excommunication.
The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an American priest with the Maryknoll religious order, said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent him an excommunication letter within two months after he participated in a ceremony ordaining women, but that the Congregation had taken years while it considered the requests of bishops to defrock pedophiles.
“What I did, supporting the ordination of women, they saw as a serious crime,” Father Bourgeois said. “But priests who were abusing children, they did not see as a crime. What does that say?”
He added, “It’s leading to this ever-deepening crisis in the church in which so many people have left or are questioning how they can stay.”
For more than two decades, polls have showed that large majorities of American Catholics favor allowing women to be ordained as priests. The latest poll of American Catholics by The New York Times and CBS News, released in May, showed that 59 percent favored ordaining women, while 33 percent were opposed.
Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.