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Vatican toughens policy on clerical paedophilia

The Vatican is to bring forward plans for tougher policing of Catholic clerics which could lead to more priests facing investigation over child sex abuse allegations.

Amid a continuing tide of revelations of paedophilia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the body responsible for investigating serious crimes within the Church – will release a new "instruction" within days that will allow many more victims to have the chance to report attacks and seek justice, Vatican sources said yesterday.

Principally, the document will extend the church's statute of limitations, allowing Vatican officials to investigate suspected clerical paedophilia cases beyond the current limit, which is 10 years after a victim's 18th birthday.

Campaign groups note that many abuse victims feel unable to report their abuse for years or decades, with some attackers going unpunished when the statute of limitation kick in. Some commentators noted yesterday that existing limits have already been waived in some cases since 2002.

Downloading child pornography from the internet is also to be ruled a "grave" canonical crime for the first time, according to a report in La Repubblica, Italy's leading centre-left daily. Culprits could be punished by dismissal from the priesthood.

News of the new rules coincided with further unwelcome child-sex headlines from Belgium. It emerged on Tuesday that documents relating to the child sex killer Marc Dutroux were recovered from the office of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, during controversial raids last month on church property of the Mechelen-Brussels archdiocese.

The police seizures were part of an investigation into child abuse by Catholic clerics in Belgium. Police questioned the 77-year-old Cardinal, formerly head of the Catholic Church in Belgium, for 10 hours yesterday, according to Belgium press reports.

He was questioned as a witness not a suspect. However, questions have emerged about what Cardinal Danneels knew about the case of Roger Vangheluwe, the Belgian church's longest-serving bishop, who resigned in April after admitting sexually abusing a boy for years.

The new Vatican document is effectively an updated and strengthened version of a 2001 decree presented by Pope John Paul II, containing the ideas of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Both the incumbent Pope and his predecessor have come under fire in the past months for failing to act on suspected cases of abuse. Benedict XVI has been accused of failing to respond when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was told of two incidents in which paedophile priests in Germany and the US were a danger to children.

In addition, John Paul II's original document, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, made no mention of the Church's obligation to work with civil authorities. And it is unclear whether the new rules will include any reference to civil reporting requirements, said Mgr Davide Cito, a canon lawyer and consultant at the Congregation.

He noted that such requirements varied from country to country, making blanket rules difficult for a document that is canonically binding on the Church around the globe.

However, in a separate set of guidelines published in April, the Vatican said that civil law regarding the reporting of sexual abuse of a minor to the police and other authorities should always be followed.

The updated document also takes account of various ad-hoc additions and modifications made over the past years and puts them into one permanent and legally binding document, Mgr Cito said.

Roman holiday

Pope Benedict XVI has planned to spend his summer holiday with theological writing, Mozart, organic food, and walks among the trees. In a break with tradition, the pontiff has not gone to an Alpine retreat, but arrived yesterday to spend July and August at Castel Gandolfo on the shore of Lake Albano, near Rome.

However, the traditional concert to greet the Pope at his summer residence has been cancelled because there wasn't enough money to pay for the orchestra, according to Corriere della Sera. When he's not relaxing, the Pontiff plans to start a new book on the childhood of Christ and also prepare the first draft of his fourth encyclical letter.