VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican spokesman defended on Saturday a revised set of rules on clerical sex abuse as an essential and lasting response to abuse cases, but acknowledged the church will need to show long-term commitment if it wants to eradicate the crime.
The Vatican issued its revised in-house rules this week, as it confronts one of the worst scandals in its recent history. Revelations of rape or other sexual abuse of minors by priests, and of cover-ups by bishops, have been piling up for months.
The new norms target not only priests who molest children, but also those who molest the mentally disabled, and double the statute of limitations for such crimes. But the norms drew criticism by abuse victims who said there were few substantive changes.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi maintained that with the new norms, "the church has taken an important step in addressing the question, with responses that will be lasting and have a profound impact."
In comments to Vatican Radio, he appeared to defend the absence of any mention of the need to report abuse to police -- one of the main points of contention.
Lombardi said the church, like any large community, must have "clear and well-known laws" that are an "essential guide" and are separate from those of individual countries where the church is present. But he stressed that "just civil laws must obviously be respected and put into practice by men of the church."
The rules, which cover the canonical procedures and penalties for the most serious sacramental and moral crimes, were issued Thursday. While the document mostly codifies existing practice, it also introduces some new elements: Priests who possess or distribute child pornography and those who sexually abuse developmentally disabled adults now will be subject to the same procedures and punishments as priests who molest minors.
But the new rules provide no canonical sanctions for bishops who cover up for abusers.
The norms also include the attempted ordination of women as a "grave crime" subject to the same set of procedures and punishments meted out for sex abuse, drawing an angry reaction from women's ordination groups.
Lombardi said that, while necessary, the law is not the entire solution. He stressed the need to commit to education and the training of clergy and other staff working in church-run institutions, where most of the abuse takes place.
"We know that our commitment ... must be a long road," he said.
Pope Benedict XVI has begged forgiveness from victims and promised to "do everything possible" to protect children. He has met with abuse victims and said the scandal had shown the need for a purification of the church.
His own native country, Germany, has seen a flood of abuse allegations surface, and even his own tenure as archbishop of Munich has come under scrutiny since a pedophile priest in his archdiocese was allowed to resume pastoral work while being treated.