CITY (AP) — Pope Francis
has changed church law to explicitly criminalize sexual abuse of adults by priests who abuse their authority, as well as to state that laypeople who hold church office can be sanctioned for similar sex crimes
The revised criminal law section of the Vatican's Code of Canon Law, which covers the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic Church
, was released on Tuesday after 14 years of research
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 can also be victimized by priests who abuse their authority and states that laypeople in church offices can be punished for abusing minors as well as adults.
The Vatican also criminalized priests' "grooming" of minors or vulnerable adults to compel them to engage in pornography
, marking the first time church law has officially recognized as criminal the method used by sexual predators to build relationships with their victims before sexually exploiting them.
The law also eliminates much of the discretion that had previously allowed bishops and religious superiors to ignore or cover up abuse, making it clear that they can be held accountable for omissions and negligence in failing to properly investigate and sanction errant priests.
Since the 1983 code's inception, lawyers and bishops have complained that it was completely inadequate to deal
with sexual abuse of minors because it required time-consuming trials, while victims and their advocates have argued that it left too much discretion in the hands of bishops who had an interest in covering up for their priests.
To address the problems and loopholes, the Vatican implemented piecemeal changes over time, most notably requiring all cases to be sent to the Holy See for review and allowing for a more streamlined administrative process to defrock a priest if the evidence against him was overwhelming.
Recently, Francis enacted new legislation to punish bishops and religious superiors who fail to protect their flocks, and the new criminal code incorporates and expands on those changes.
According to the new law, priests who engage in sexual acts with anyone — not just minors or people who lack the ability to reason — can be defrocked if they use “force, threats, or abuse of his authority” to engage in sexual acts.
The law does not specify which adults are covered, only stating that “one to whom the law recognizes equal protection” is protected.
The Vatican has long considered any sexual relations between a priest and an adult to be sinful but consensual, believing that adults are able to offer or refuse consent
simply by virtue of their age. However, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and scandals involving seminarians and nuns being sexually abused by their superiors, the Vatican has realized that adults can also be victimized if they are in a relationship with a priest.
That dynamic was most evident in the scandal involving ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington
. Despite the Vatican's knowledge for years that he slept with his seminarians, McCarrick was only put on trial after someone came forward alleging abuse as a child. Francis defrocked him in 2019.
In a novel move aimed at addressing sex crimes committed by laypeople who hold church offices, such as lay religious movement founders or church administrators, the new law states that laypeople can be similarly punished if they abuse their authority to commit sexual crimes.
Due to the inability of these laypeople to be defrocked, penalties include losing their jobs
, paying fines
, or being removed from their communities.
The scandal involving Luis Figari, the lay founder of the Peru-based conservative group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative movement with 20,000 members and chapters across South America and the United States
, demonstrated the need for such a provision.
An independent investigation
concluded that he was a paranoid narcissist obsessed with sex and watching his subordinates suffer pain and humiliation, but the Vatican ditherd for years over how to sanction him, eventually deciding to remove him from Peru and isolate him from the community.
On December 8, the new law goes into effect.