Pope Francis changed ecclesiastical law to explicitly criminalize sexual abuse of adults by priests who abuse their authority, and to point out that lay persons serving in the Church can be punished for similar sexual offenses.
The new rules, released Tuesday after 14 years of study, are part of the revised section of the penal code of the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, the legal system that governs the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church.
The most significant changes are in two articles, 1,395 and 1,398, which seek to correct problems and deficits in the management of sexual abuse by the Church.
The law recognizes that adults can also be victims of priests who abuse their authority, and says that laymen who perform church work can be punished for abusing minors or adults.
The Vatican also criminalized the “grooming” of minors or vulnerable adults by priests to incite them to participate in pornographic material.
It is the first time that canon law officially recognizes as criminal the method used by sexual offenders to establish relationships with their victims, with gifts and other distinctions, and then exploit them sexually.
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The reform also removes much of the discretion that allowed bishops and Church leaders to ignore or cover up abuses, and makes it clear that they may face liability for omissions and negligence when it comes to properly investigating and punishing priests involved in abuses.
Since the current code was drawn up in 1983, lawyers and bishops have complained that it was totally inadequate to handle the sexual abuse of minors, as it required lengthy trials.
The victims and their defenders, for their part, claimed that there was too much decision-making power in the hands of bishops interested in protecting their priests.
The Vatican has made small changes over the years to correct problems and loopholes, such as requiring all cases to be sent for review to the Holy See and allowing a more streamlined administrative process to remove clergy from the priesthood if evidenced against it is overwhelming.
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Francis recently approved new regulations to punish bishops and religious superiors who fail to protect their parishioners. The new penal code incorporates these changes and goes further.
Under the new law, priests who have sex with anyone – not just a minor or a person without reasoning ability – will be expelled if they use “force, threats or abuse of authority” to achieve those relationships.
The law does not explicitly define which adults would be included, and only mentions “one whom the law recognizes equal protection.”
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The Vatican has long considered a sexual relationship between a priest and an adult as a sin, albeit consensual, on the premise that adults can give or deny consent solely because of their age.
But amid the #MeToo movement and scandals of seminarians and nuns who suffered sexual abuse from their superiors, the Vatican has assumed that adults can also be victims if they are in a relationship with an imbalance of power.
That dynamic was very visible in the scandal surrounding former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington. Although the Vatican had known for years that he was sleeping with his seminarians, McCarrick was not tried until someone reported that the clergyman had abused him when he was young. Francis expelled him from the priesthood in 2019.
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In a novelty aimed at addressing sex crimes committed by laypersons working within the Church, such as founders of lay religious movements or even administrators, the new law indicates that laypersons can be similarly punished if they abuse their authority to commit sexual crimes.
Since laymen cannot be expelled from the priesthood, penalties such as losing their jobs, fines, or being removed from their communities are contemplated.
The need for that clause was made clear in the scandal surrounding Luis Figari, the lay founder of the Peru-based conservative group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, which has 20,000 members and delegations throughout South America and the United States.
An independent investigation concluded that the founder was a paranoid narcissist obsessed with sex and seeing how his followers endured pain and humiliation. But the Vatican hesitated for years on how to sanction him, until deciding that he should be removed from his community and transferred out of Peru.
The new law goes into effect on December 8.