Pope Francis has changed church law to explicitly criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by priests who abuse their authority, and to say that laypeople who hold church office can be sanctioned for similar sex crimes.
The new provisions, released Tuesday after 14 years of study, were contained in the revised criminal law section of the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, the in-house legal system that covers the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic Church.
The most significant changes are contained in two articles, 1395 and 1398, which aim to address major shortcomings in the church’s handling of sexual abuse. The law recognizes that adults, too, can be victimized by priests who abuse their authority over them, and said that laypeople in church offices, such as school principals or parish economists, can be punished for abusing minors as well as adults.
The revision of “Book VI: Penal Sanctions in the Church,” one of seven books that make up the code for the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, was promulgated June 1 and will go into effect Dec. 8, Pope Francis wrote.
Rewriting 63 of the book’s 89 canons, the revision addresses a host of issues that have come up in the life of the church since St. John Paul II promulgated the code in 1983. The descriptions of crimes of sexual abuse, including child pornography, are more explicit, and the required actions of a bishop or superior of a religious order in handling allegations are more stringent.
The revised canons also include new references to the attempted ordination of a woman and to a variety of financial crimes; like with the new canons dealing with sexual abuse, they rely on language from laws promulgated separately over the past 20 years.
Vatican News reports:
“Tend the flock of God, guarding it not by constraint but willingly, as it pleases God” (cf. 1 Pet 5:2). The Apostolic Constitution “Pascite Gregem Dei”, with which Pope Francis reforms Book VI of the Code of Canon Law on penal sanctions in the Church, begins with these words of the Apostle Peter. The new text, presented on Tuesday in the Holy See Press Office, enters into force on 8 December.
“In order to respond adequately to the needs of the Church throughout the world,” explains Pope Francis, “it appeared evident that the penal discipline promulgated by St. John Paul II on January 25, 1983 in the Code of Canon Law needed to be revised, and that it required modification in such a way as to allow Pastors to employ it as a more agile salvific and corrective tool, to be applied promptly and with pastoral charity to avoid more serious evils and to soothe the wounds caused by human weakness.”
The Pope recalls that Benedict XVI launched this revision in 2007, a process which engaged, “in a spirit of collegiality and cooperation,” with Canon Law experts from around the world, as well as with Bishops’ Conferences, major superiors of religious institutes, and Dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The resulting intense and complex text was submitted to the Pope in February 2020.
In his Apostolic Constitution, Pope Francis notes that the Church throughout the centuries has given itself rules of conduct “which unite the People of God and for whose observance the Bishops are responsible.” He also stresses that “charity and mercy require a Father to commit himself also to straightening what at times becomes crooked.”
It is a task, he explains, “which must be carried out as a concrete and inalienable requirement of charity not only towards the Church, the Christian community and possible victims, but also towards those who have committed a crime, who require both mercy and correction from the Church. In the past, much damage has been caused by a lack of perception of the intimate relationship which exists in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse—when circumstances and justice require it—to penal sanctions.” He says this trend represented a way of thinking which made correction more difficult, “often giving rise to scandal and confusion among the faithful.”
Therefore, adds the Pope, “the negligence of a Pastor in resorting to the penal system demonstrates that he is not fulfilling his function correctly and faithfully.”
In fact, “charity requires that Pastors have recourse to the penal system as often as necessary, keeping in mind the three aims which make it necessary in the ecclesial community, namely, the restoration of the demands of justice, the amendment of the offender, and the reparation of scandals.”
“The new text,” says the Pope, “introduces various changes to the law currently in force and imposes sanctions on some new offenses.”
He notes that Book VI has also been improved “from a technical point of view, especially with regard to fundamental aspects of criminal law, such as the right of defense, the statute of limitations for criminal action, and a more precise determination of penalties”, offering “objective criteria in identifying the most appropriate sanction to be applied in a concrete case” and reducing an authority’s discretion, in order to favor ecclesial unity in the application of penalties, “especially for offenses that cause greater damage and scandal in the community.”