Catholic Church Law Tightened To Explicitly Criminalize Sexual Abuse Of Adults By Priests, Laity

June 2, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

On Tuesday, June 1, Pope Francis made a long-awaited change to the criminal section of the Code of Canon Law, or Catholic Church law: The changes explicitly criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by priests who misuse their authority. It also holds laypeople in church offices accountable via sanctions for similar sex crimes.

The Code of Canon Law is the legal system that regulates the life of the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church and operates independently from laws in the secular world. The last time the code was rewritten was in 1983, and before that in 1917, the Associated Press reports. The changes published on Tuesday concern only one of the code’s seven sections, or books — the penal law section, or Book VI, and is known as an apostolic constitution with the title, Pascite Gregem Dei, which translates as “Tend the Flock.”

At the end of 2019, the Vatican office responsible for processing clergy sex abuse complaints — The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — had a record 1,000 cases reported from around the world that year, including some regions that had not reported any allegations at all. It was a four-fold increase overall in the number of reported cases compared with a decade ago, an Associated Press article on Dec. 20, 2019 had said. The CDF is one of the nine congregations of the Roman Curia, the central body through which affairs of the Catholic Church are conducted in the name of the pope and with his authority.

Decades of clergy abuse and cover-ups have left rank-and-file Catholics disillusioned. Over the years, the Vatican has issued piecemeal changes to address problems and loopholes. The most important among those was one that required all cases to be sent to the Holy See for review and that allowed for a more streamlined administrative process to defrock a priest if the evidence against him was overwhelming, according to an Associated Press report. The Holy See is the central governing body of the Catholic Church and a sovereign entity recognized by international law.

But in 2019, even the Vatican’s most secretive institution felt the need to show some transparency as the church hierarchy seeks to rebuild trust. An AP photographer and video journalists were allowed into the CDF’s inner chambers for the report back then, marking the first time in the tribunal’s history that visual news media were given access. 

Also in 2019, the pope had announced sweeping changes to the way the Roman Catholic church dealt with child sexual abuse cases, and abolished the rule of pontifical secrecy that previously covered them. Francis had issued two documents that backed practices that were already in place in some countries, particularly the U.S., such as reporting suspicions of sexual abuse to civil authorities where required by law.

The changes to canon law announced on Tuesday appear to be a continuation of the response to numerous clerical sex abuse and financial scandals that have taken place across the world over the last quarter century, NPR reported.

What Are The Changes?

The biggest changes are contained in two articles: 1395 and 1398, which deal with the way the church handles sexual abuse cases. Under the new law, which will go into effect on Dec. 8, the church will recognize that it’s not just children but adults as well who can be victimized by priests who abuse their authority. The revised law also makes it clear that laypeople who hold church positions, such as school principals or parish economists, can be punished for abusing minors as well as adults.

A priest who engages in sexual acts with anyone — not just with a minor or someone who lacks the use of reason — can now be defrocked if he uses “force, threats or abuse of his authority.” Before the revised law, the church’s thinking on abuse was largely perceived to be one that considered any sexual relations between a priest and an adult as sinful but consensual, on the basis that adults are able to offer or refuse consent purely by virtue of their age. But the Vatican has come to realize that adults can be victimized too, especially if there is a power imbalance in the relationship. An example of that was the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.

The Vatican published a report in November 2020 that found the former cardinal had abused his authority to force seminarians to sleep with him. That report also showed, more worryingly, that McCarrick continued to abuse seminarians for decades thanks to cover-ups by prominent church figures. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were aware of the accusations, the report said. McCarrick was defrocked in 2019 on charges of sexual abuse of minors and adults.

Along with expanding the definition of abuse to include adults, the changes to canon law also criminalizes priests grooming minors or vulnerable adults to compel them to engage in creating sexual abuse material, making it the first time it has officially recognized the method sexual predators use to build relationships with victims they have targeted as a criminal act. The law doesn’t explicitly define which adults are covered, saying only an adult who “habitually has an imperfect use of reason” or for “whom the law recognizes equal protection.” The Vatican previously defined vulnerable adults as those who even occasionally are unable to understand or consent because of a physical or mental deficiency or those who are deprived of their personal liberty, according to the Associated Press report.

The revised law will also hold those in positions of authority responsible for ignoring or covering up abuse, and failing to properly investigate or sanction predator priests. A bishop can be removed from office for “culpable negligence” or if he does not report sex crimes to church authorities, but the revision does not set forth any punishment for failing to report suspected crimes to the police either.

When it comes to its take on ordaining women, though, the revised laws have been criticized. For centuries, the church has banned women from becoming priests, saying that is a right reserved only for a “baptized male.” But now, the code will specifically stipulate that both the person who attempts to confer ordination on a woman, and the woman herself will incur automatic excommunication and that the cleric would risk being defrocked. It’s a “painful reminder of the Vatican’s patriarchal machinery, and its far-reaching attempts to subordinate women,” Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference said in a statement on the organization’s website.

Why Was The Law Changed?

The changes to the law, as mentioned earlier, are part of reforms that Pope Francis has already undertaken, especially with those in 2019. But the fact that changes were necessary was recognized and identified early on, even within the church.

“Shortly after the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, the limits of Book VI on Criminal Law became apparent. Following an idea of decentralization the drafting of Penal notes has been largely indeterminate. It was thought at that time, that it was up to the bishops and superiors to decide, according to the gravity of the circumstances, which offenses to punish and how to punish them. This indeterminacy of the norms and the difficulties of many Ordinaries found at that time in combining charity with punishment was because criminal law was hardly applied. Moreover, it was not understood that bishops reacted differently to similar situations,” Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa de Chinchetru, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts, said in a post on Vatican News, explaining the history behind a change in the law.

“This situation caused the Holy See to intervene assigning the most serious crimes exclusively to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and granting the faculty to intervene to other dicasteries of the Curia. Finally, Pope Benedict decided to review Book VI,” he added. Vatican News is the news portal of the Holy See.

The 1983 code was deemed completely inadequate when it came to dealing with the sexual abuse of minors. It was complicated, required time-consuming trials and gave accused priests plenty of defenses to avoid penalties or be exonerated on appeal.

Separately, just last week, the pope ordered a residence for altar boys who serve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to be moved out of the Vatican, after it became the subject of a sexual abuse trial, Reuters reported.