The Vatican is using its new rules to crack down on sex abuse by high-ranking churchmen, revealing that it has ordered a Belgian bishop to no longer work as a priest while officials determine his punishment.
Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, 74, admitted abusing his nephew and resigned a year ago, just as the sex abuse scandal was spreading across Europe and the Vatican was revising the way it handled prosecutions of bishops and other top officials.
Over the weekend, Belgian bishops reported that Vangheluwe had merely been sent outside the country for spiritual and psychological counseling, a seemingly cushy measure given the seriousness of the crime.
In a statement responding to queries from The Associated Press, the Vatican clarified on Tuesday that Vangheluwe is being sanctioned, including not being allowed to work as a priest or bishop.
Pope Benedict XVI will eventually decide his fate. Benedict will base a punishment on the diagnosis and prognosis of Vangheluwe's treatment, and on "the suffering of the victims and the need for justice," the Vatican said.
Vangheluwe is still technically a priest, though he is not allowed to celebrate Mass publicly. Among the possible punishments that Benedict can issue is to remove him from the priesthood altogether.
The move against him comes at a time when high-ranking church officials elsewhere are facing increased scrutiny from criminal prosecutors, including a monsignor in Philadelphia and a bishop in Ottawa, Canada, on sex-related charges. Both could land in prison.
A research organization that documents the Catholic sex abuse crisis said the Vatican's order against the Belgian bishop was "long overdue and minimal" and that Vangheluwe should have been thrown out of the priesthood long ago.
"And yet the Vatican's action is notable as one of the few times that it has publicly disciplined a high-ranking church official for child sex crimes," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org.
Belgian prosecutors haven't pressed charges against Vangheluwe. The Vatican said it took action even though its own statute of limitations had expired.
Sex abuse victims accuse the church of letting off the hook bishops who molested minors or helped cover for priests who did.
Last May, the church revised its rules to enable its chief enforcer, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to prosecute bishops and cardinals, not just priests. In the past, the pope would delegate the cases of bishops who committed canonical crimes to various Vatican offices or the Roman Rota, a Vatican court.
Vangheluwe, Belgium's longest-serving bishop, admitted he had abused a boy for years as a priest and even after becoming a bishop in 1984. It later was established that the victim, now in his early 40s, was his nephew.
The revision of the church's sex abuse norms came as the sex abuse scandal exploded.
Thousands of people came forward in Europe and elsewhere with reports of priests who had abused them, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who ignored the crimes for decades.
Victims' advocates said children will remain at risk as long as the Vatican declines to go after bishops who allowed the abuse to continue by moving pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than turning them in to police.
"If the pope can't ever bring himself to say, 'This man is being demoted because he enabled pedophile priests to hurt kids,' then there's little real chance for internal reform," said David Clohessy, national director for the U.S. victims' group Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
In Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn became the first church official to be indicted on child endangerment charges.
Lynn, the former secretary for clergy in the Philadelphia archdiocese, is accused of knowingly moving known abusers around. He faces up to 28 years in prison if convicted. Defense lawyers say Lynn didn't have any children under his care and never thought any children were being put at risk.
Next month, a federal court in Ottawa is due to put Bishop Raymond Lahey on trial on child pornography charges. He resigned as bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in 2009, after authorities said they found child pornography while conducting a random search of his laptop computer at an airport.
Such criminal cases are virtually unheard of, since the statute of limitations has often prevented prosecution.
Until recently there also hasn't been the political appetite among U.S. prosecutors, many of whom are elected, to go after clergymen for abuse, said Marci Hamilton, a law professor and co-counsel in a number of sex abuse lawsuits filed against the Philadelphia archdiocese.
She called the Lynn case a "tipping point," in that a Catholic prosecutor is taking the political risk to prosecute a monsignor for an abuse-related crime.
"This was a huge moment in the history of this problem for the church because it was the first time in the U.S. that anyone above a priest had been indicted in an abuse case, and in particular for covering up abuse," Hamilton said.
Vatican officials said they are awaiting the outcome of the Ottawa trial before continuing with their own case against Lahey.
Under last year's revision of the sex abuse norms, acquiring, possessing and distributing pornography of children under age 14 years is considered to be an equally serious canonical crime that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith deals with.
Beyond Lahey, Vatican officials declined to say which other bishops might come before the congregation for abuse-related punishments.