June 1, 2021
By Chico Harlan
The Vatican said Tuesday that Pope Francis has signed off on a rewrite of the universal Catholic Church’s internal penal system, updating a version in place since the 1980s and laying out clearer penalties for the sexual abuse of minors.
The changes, although years in the making, are in part a response to the church’s raft of abuse and financial scandals — which have often been magnified by secretive, highly subjective decision-making about how and whether to apply punishments.
Pope Francis, in a letter accompanying the revisions, said the laws were intended to be clearer and simpler, while reducing the number of instances in which penalties are left to the “discretion of authorities.”
“It is necessary that these norms be closely related to social changes and the new needs of the People of God,” the pope wrote.
The changes give church authorities — whether in the Vatican or a far-flung parish — a new template for assessing and addressing possible church violations. The changes deal specifically with church penal sanctions; other parts of canon law — the church’s vast set of ecclesiastical rules — remain unchanged. Still, those revisions alone mark the most significant rewrite of canon law in four decades, since the era of Pope John Paul II.
The new laws state that clerics who abuse minors or other vulnerable people be punished with “deprivation from office,” and potentially with defrocking. Previously, the church had only said such cases merit “just penalties,” not excluding defrocking.
In addition, the church also explicitly criminalized the grooming of minors for participation in pornography, as well as the acquisition and distribution of child pornography. The new laws also state that laypeople in positions of power can be punished for abuse as well.
The church is now several decades into its effort to reduce cases of clerical abuse and better hold to account bishops and cardinals who have sometimes protected known abusers.
Church critics say the very effort to handle punishment in-house is misguided: Civil authorities should be immediately notified and given responsibility for cases. But those critics say that even the church’s canonical system, when used to dole out penalties to abusers, has been too lax, tending to value the word of priests over the accounts of their alleged victims.
Before these changes, Francis — under enormous pressure from a wave of abuse cases — had taken more piecemeal measures. In the aftermath of a global church abuse summit in 2019, Francis enacted new legislation requiring priests and nuns to report abuse accusations to church authorities. He also drew up a new system for investigating complaints of abuse or coverup against bishops or other higher-ups, one of the long-standing trouble spots for the church.
The revisions in canon law released Tuesday go far beyond the abuse issue, although some of the foundational parts remain unchanged. Like the previous version, this one says that excommunication should be used only for the gravest offenses. One instance, then and now, that can lead to excommunication: procuring an abortion. Heretics and schismatics get the same punishment.
But this version has changes that seem to acknowledge some of the church’s recent scandals, including financial misconduct by church authorities. The new norms expand on the list of money-related crimes, specifically mentioning “financial” offenses, adding that to the existing violation of conducting trade or business “contrary to the prescripts of the canons.”
The Vatican has been dealing with the fallout of a losing real estate investment in a London luxury property that allegedly landed large profits for the financiers who brokered the deal. Vatican prosecutors are investigating the deal.