Catholics angry as church puts female ordination on par with sex abuse Women's groups describe Vatican's decision on female ordination as 'appalling' John Hooper in Rome and Haroon Siddique guardian.co.uk, Thursday 15 July 2010 21.03 BST Three bishops at the ordination of a female French priest in Lyons in 2005. All four women were excommunicated. From left: South African Patricia Fresen, Austrian Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and German Gisela Forster. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP It was meant to be the document that put a lid on the clerical sex abuse scandals that have swept the Roman Catholic world. But instead of quelling fury from within and without the church, the Vatican stoked the anger of liberal Catholics and women's groups by including a provision in its revised decree that made the "attempted ordination" of women one of the gravest crimes in ecclesiastical law. The change put the "offence" on a par with the sex abuse of minors. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, called the document "one of the most insulting and misogynistic pronouncements that the Vatican has made for a very long time. Why any self-respecting woman would want to remain part of an organisation that regards their full and equal participation as a 'grave sin' is a mystery to me." Vivienne Hayes, the chief executive of the Women's Resource Centre, said the decision to raise women's ordination to the level of a serious crime was "appalling". She added: "This declaration is doubly disempowering for women as it also closes the door on dialogue around women's access to power and decision making, when they are still under-represented in all areas of political, religious and civic life. We would urge the Catholic church to acknowledge that women's rights are not incompatible with religious faith." Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: "We are sure that the vast majority of the general public will share in our abject horror at the Vatican's decision to categorise the ordination of women as an 'offence' in the same category as paedophilia deemed to be one of the 'gravest offences a priest can commit'. "This statement follows a series where the Vatican, an institution which yields great influence and power not only in the Catholic community but also wider society, has pitched itself in direct opposition not only to women's rights but to our equal worth and value. We hope this is an issue that the government takes the opportunity to raise if it still feels the impending papal visit is appropriate." The revision of a decree first issued nine years ago was intended to address the issue of clerical sex abuse. Last night it remained unclear why the Vatican had decided to invite further controversy by changing the status of women's ordination in canon law. Since scandals blew up in Germany in January, five Roman Catholic bishops have resigned as evidence has come to light of priests who raped or molested children, and of superiors who turned a blind eye to safeguard the reputation of the church. Data from countries in which church membership is officially registered suggest tens of thousands of Catholics, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have abandoned their faith in disgust. Father Federico Lombardi, the pope's spokesman, stressed that the new rules on sex abuse applied solely to procedures for defrocking priests under canon law. They had no bearing on whether suspected offenders were notified to the civil authorities he said bishops had already been reminded of their duty to do so. The most important change is to extend the period during which a clergyman can be tried by a church court from 10 to 20 years, dating from the 18th birthday of his victim. Many people who were abused by priests are unable to summon up the courage to come forward until well into adulthood. The new norms also streamline the procedures for dealing with the most urgent and serious cases, enabling bishops to defrock priests without a long, costly trial. They put abuse of the mentally disabled on a level with that of minors. And they introduce a new crime of paedophile pornography, defined as "the acquisition, possession or disclosure" by a clergyman of pornographic images of children below the age of 14. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, who helped overhaul the rules, said: "This gives a signal that we are very, very serious in our commitment to promote safe environments and to offer an adequate response to abuse." Lombardi said the Vatican was working on further instructions "so that the directives it issues on the subject of sexual abuse of minors, either by the clergy or institutions connected with the church, may be increasingly rigorous, coherent and effective". But Barbara Doris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (Snap) said it was tackling the issue the wrong way round. "Defrocking a predator, by definition, is too late," she said. "Severe harm has already been done."