Pope orders sweeping change of abuse law

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

June 1, 2021

By Christopher Lamb

Pope Francis has ordered a sweeping revision of the Church’s Canon Law, toughening up regulations on abuse which now include lay people who commit offences while in office. 

The changes were made after a 14-year process of study of the Church’s laws, and is the most significant updating of Canon Law since the 1983 code was published. The revisions concern book VI of the code, which covers penal law, and are significant as Canon Law is the tool which regulates Church discipline.  

The revisions make clear that abuse can be committed by a cleric against an adult, and not just a minor, and states that “any one of the faithful who enjoys a dignity or performs an office or function in the Church” can be punished for abuse. Any priest, it says, who abuses his authority to force someone to engage in sexual acts can be removed from the clerical state. 

Furthermore, the new norms criminalise the grooming of minors or those with “imperfect use of reason” by priests, which includes exposing a victim to pornography, a method long used by abusers. 

As a result of the revisions, bishops and other church leaders who display “culpable negligence” of abuse can be removed from office. In a letter introducing the changes, the Pope reminded bishops they are responsible for following the law, and the updating of the code was designed to reduce the number of occasions where penalties for abuse were left to the “discretion” of some superiors. 

Significantly, the abuse of minors was placed under the section “Offences Against Human Life, Dignity and Liberty,” instead of the previous title “Crimes Against Special Obligations.” The Bishops of England and Wales had this year requested this change in a letter to the office tasked with undertaking the revision of the code. They had requested a different title to placing abuse under “crimes against the obligations of celibacy on the part of clerics.” At the time they were told the change would be made.

The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts has overseen the latest changes with Archbishop Filippo Iannone, explaining at a Vatican press briefing on Tuesday 1 June that there had been “a climate of excessive slack in the interpretation of penal law,” where mercy was placed ahead of justice. 

The new code to Canon Law follows other changes the Pope has made to tackle clerical sexual abuse. These include a 2019 ruling designed to hold church leaders accountable for abuse, and ensure there are global norms for reporting offences. In 2016, he set out guidelines for removing bishops who are negligent in their handling of abuse cases. Francis has also issued legislation for the Vatican City State making it an offence for officials not to report abuse and has abolished the pontifical secret in abuse cases. A number of these changes followed recommendations held during a landmark Vatican summit of bishops on tackling abuse in February 2019.