Vatican law criminalizes sexual abuse of adults by priests and laity

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Pope Francis changed church law to explicitly criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by priests who abuse their authority and to say that lay people who hold religious office can be punished for similar sex crimes.

The new provisions, released Tuesday after 14 years of study, were contained in the revised criminal law section of the Vatican Code of Canon Law, the domestic legal system that covers the Catholic Church with 1.3 billion people strong.

The most significant changes are contained in two articles, 1395 and 1398, which seek to address major gaps in the church’s handling of sexual abuse. The law recognizes that adults can also be victims of priests who abuse their authority, and says lay people in church offices can be punished for abusing minors as well as adults.

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The Vatican has also criminalized the “grooming” of minors or vulnerable adults by priests to coerce them into engaging in pornography. It is the first time that ecclesiastical law officially recognizes as criminal the method used by sexual predators to form relationships with their victims and then sexually exploit them.

The law also removes much of the discretion that has long allowed bishops and religious superiors to ignore or cover up abuses, making it clear that they can be held responsible for omissions and negligence by failing to carry out such abuses. ‘properly investigated and sanctioned wandering priests.

FILE - In this archive photo from November 8, 2020, Pope Francis reads his message during the midday Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square in the Vatican.  (AP Photo / Alessandra Tarantino, file)
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FILE – In this archive photo from November 8, 2020, Pope Francis reads his message during the midday Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. (AP Photo / Alessandra Tarantino, file)

Since the enactment of the 1983 code, lawyers and bishops have complained that it was totally inadequate to deal with child sexual abuse because it required lengthy trials. Victims and their lawyers, meanwhile, argued that this left too much discretion in the hands of bishops who had an interest in covering their priests.

The Vatican has issued piecemeal changes over the years to address issues and shortcomings, most importantly requiring that all cases be sent to the Holy See for review and allowing for a more streamlined administrative process to defrock a priest if the evidence is against him were overwhelming.

More recently, Francis has passed new laws to punish bishops and religious superiors who have failed to protect their flocks. The new penal code incorporates these changes and goes beyond.

Under the new law, priests who engage in sexual acts with anyone – not just a minor or someone who has no sanity – can be defrocked if they have used ” force, threats or abuse of authority “to engage in sexual acts.

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The law does not explicitly define which adults are covered, saying only “those to whom the law grants equal protection”.

The Vatican has long viewed any sexual relationship between a priest and an adult as sinful but consensual, believing that adults are able to offer or withhold consent only because of their age. But amid the #MeToo movement and scandals of seminarians and nuns sexually abused by their superiors, the Vatican has realized that adults can also be victims if they are in a relationship with an imbalance of power.

This dynamic was most clearly recognized in the scandal of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington. Even though the Vatican had known for years that he slept with his seminarians, McCarrick was only brought to trial after someone came forward saying he had mistreated him in his youth. François defrocked him in 2019.

In a novelty aimed at combating sex crimes committed by lay people who hold religious office, such as founders of secular religious movements or even church administrators, the new law states that lay people can be punished in the same way. ‘They abuse their authority to commit sex crimes.

Since these lay people cannot be defrocked, sanctions include loss of their jobs, payment of fines, or dismissal from their communities.

The need for such a provision became clear in the scandal involving Luis Figari, the secular founder of the Peru-based conservative group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative movement with 20,000 members and branches in South America and the United States.

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An independent investigation concluded that he was a paranoid narcissist obsessed with sex and watching his subordinates endure pain and humiliation. But the Vatican hesitated for years on how to sanction him, ultimately deciding to remove him from Peru and isolate him from the community.

The new law will come into force on December 8.

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