ROME — Pope Francis has broadened the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of sex abuse by revising its penal code. The change explicitly acknowledges that not only children, but also adults, can be victimized by priests and laypeople who abuse their offices and standing in the church.
The Vatican announced on June 1, 2021 that the pope had made changes to the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, which stands as the legal framework for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics. The revisions are part and parcel of the church’s ongoing efforts to address gaps in the organization’s lurching response to the sex abuse scandals that have shocked the Roman Catholic faithful for the last several decades.
The changes are said by church supporters to reflect a new appreciation in the Catholic church that power dynamics can trigger abuse. Church law previously considered sexual relationships between clerics and consenting adults as sinful but not criminal.
Pope acknowledges Abuse of Power by Clerics, Lay Persons
Pope Francis has consistently seen clerics’ child sex abuse scandals as stemming from an abuse of power, so the new rules extend that view to include adults.
Francis said in May 2021 that the new text published by the Vatican on June 1 “introduces various modifications to the law in force and sanctions some new criminal offenses, which respond to the ever more widespread need in the various communities to see the re-establishment of justice and order broken by the crime.”
Many victims’ groups have accused the pope of failing to act quickly enough in light of ever-unfolding priest sex abuse scandals. The church’s titular head has, however, taken some ostensibly helpful steps to address the sex abuse of minors. He has passed church laws to punish bishops and religious superiors for both their negligence and/or their failure to protect their flocks.
In public remarks, the pope incorporated and added to those norms in the new law by writing that it became clear that, after 14 years of study, the penal code first proclaimed by St. John Paul II in 1983 needed revision.
Book VI, Code of Canon Law addendum
“I hereby promulgate the revised text of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law as it has been ordered and revised,” said Pope Francis.
One article of the new law makes it clear that abuse can extend not only to minors but also to adults. It further states that a cleric “who by force, threats or abuse of his authority” violates the commandment against adultery, “or forces someone to perform or submit to sexual acts is to be punished” with penalties “not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.”
Canon law considers the defrocking of a priest among the most severe punishments.
Penalties for Grooming Sex Victims
For the first time ever, another article now criminalizes the practice of building relationships with children in order to exploit them — an infamous child-predator ploy known as “grooming.” The new law says that a cleric should also be removed from office and should suffer other “just penalties” if he “grooms or induces a minor or a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason” to engage in pornography “whether real or simulated.”
The new law also extends harsh penalties to non-priest leaders in the church who abuse their power in holding church office or by founding lay religious movements. The new law says that while those people cannot be defrocked, they will be “justly punished,” though the new law fails to state just how that punishment might be applied.
“A member of an institute of consecrated life or of a society of apostolic life, or any one of the faithful who enjoys a dignity or performs an office or function in the Church, who commits” sexual abuse is to be punished “according to the gravity of the offense,” states the law.
Pope Francis added the caveat that he hoped the law would be applied to priests “when necessary, with justice and mercy,” which sounds well shy of a zero-tolerance approach. The church’s leader added that a pastor has the responsibility to “impose penalties when the good of the faithful demands it.”
According to the pope, the new law — planned to take effect on Dec. 8, 2021 — also improves technical aspects such as a right to defense, clarifies the statute of limitations for trying crimes, and more clearly defines penalties and sentencing guidelines.
The new guidelines remove the discretion given to bishops and other church leaders that allowed for offenders to sidestep accountability and church authorities to cover up abuse. The new law makes clear that the failure to investigate and punish offending priests will have consequences. It also seeks to speed up a process that victims and their advocates have criticized as lengthy and cumbersome.
Victims of perverted priests have long called for the addition to canon law in order to more clearly define the crimes and better protect children as well as adults.