VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican is cracking down on priests who sexually abuse mentally impaired adults, sanctioning them with the same set of punishments meted out for clerics who rape and molest children, The Associated Press has learned.
A church source close to the Vatican told the AP on Thursday that a soon-to-be-released Vatican document on handling clerical abuse of minors under age 18 would also refer to adults with an "imperfect use of reason."
Such particularly vulnerable victims will now have their cases handled directly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under a special set of norms that can result in a priest being quickly defrocked without a canonical trial.
The source asked that his name not be used because the document has not yet been released to the public.
The instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be the first major document to be published since the clerical abuse scandal erupted earlier this year with hundreds of new cases coming to light of priests who molested children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye for decades.
The church's internal justice system for dealing with abuse allegations has come under attack because of claims by victims that their accusations were long ignored by bishops more concerned about protecting the church and by the Congregation, which was headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 until he was elected pope in 2005.
The bulk of the new document is expected to merely codify the ad hoc norms for dealing canonically with pedophile priests that are currently in use, making them permanent and legally binding. The 10-year statute of limitations is expected to be extended, although it already has been on a case-by-case basis since 2002. In addition, buying, selling or possessing child pornography is also expected to be listed as a canonical crime handled by the Congregation for the first time in a Vatican instruction, although the Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, has written that it has been considered such for several years.
As a result, the new document is unlikely to appease abuse victims, who have called for a sweeping, "one strike and you're out" policy that goes beyond the current procedures.
But the reference to priests who abuse mentally impaired adults marks a concrete new element that drew cautious praise Thursday from the main U.S. victims' group, the Survivors' Network for Those Abused by Priests.
"It's a small, positive, long overdue step," said SNAP president Barbara Blaine. "Often mentally diminished adults are just as vulnerable to shrewd predators as children are." But she cautioned that enforcement was key.
Previously, such abuse cases would be handled by the local bishop who would have to conduct a time-consuming canonical trial.
Now, such cases will come before the Congregation and be subject to its own norms.
The Congregation's norms, first issued in 2001 and updated in 2003 to speed up the process, allow for Rome to authorize the diocese to pursue either a judicial or an administrative trial, both of which can condemn a priest to a number of penalties, including defrocking, or what the church calls being reduced to the lay state. Or the Congregation can conduct a trial on its own, although that is rare.
If the evidence is overwhelming, the Congregation can refer the case directly to the pope, who can issue a decree dismissing the priest from the priesthood altogether, a fast-track procedure adopted in the aftermath of the 2002 U.S. abuse scandal amid demands for faster justice for obvious abusers.
The Vatican has said in an informal set of guidelines that bishops should follow local civil laws concerning reporting abusive priests to police.
The issue of priests who abuse mentally deficient adults has already come before the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura, or high court: In 2007, the court revoked the right of a priest to exercise his ministry after he was found to have had sexual relations with a mentally impaired adult woman.
And it has come before civil courts in the U.S. as well. In 2002, the Jesuit order agreed to pay $7.5 million to two mentally disabled men who said they were sodomized and molested for decades by Jesuit priests at a Northern California retreat, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
Beyond sex abuse crimes, the new document is also expected to gather together into one document other "grave" canonical crimes, including the attempted ordination of women. Already in 2007 the Congregation issued a decree saying that anyone who tries to ordain a woman, and the woman herself, incur automatic excommunication. The thrust of that decree is expected to be reprinted in the new instruction.