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The Vatican’s prison code, intercourse abuse defined

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Tuesday released a long-awaited update on the criminal section of its Codex of Canon Law, the internal legal system that governs the life of the 1.3 billion-member Catholic Church and operates independently of laws in the secular world.

In this oldest continuously functioning legal system in the western world, the harshest punishments are dismissal, excommunication, dismissal or a fine – or a ban on living in a certain place. The aim of the punishments is to “fix the scandal, restore justice and reform the perpetrator”.

The last time the Code was rewritten was in 1983, and before that in 1917. The changes published on Tuesday affect only one of the seven sections or books of the Code: the Criminal Law Section or Book VI.

In many ways, the changes released on Tuesday incorporate incremental reforms made over the years to tackle clergy sexual abuse and financial scandals that have damaged the credibility of the hierarchy in the eyes of ordinary believers.


Here is an explanation of how the Church has dealt with clergy sexual abuse and the changes approved by Pope Francis after about 14 years of study.



Since the first enactment of the Code in 1983, lawyers and bishops have complained that addressing the sexual abuse of minors was utterly inadequate because it was complicated, required time-consuming processes, and provided the accused priests with ample defenses to avoid punishment or on appeal to be relieved.

The Code also specifically made conducting these processes a last resort, with other pastoral measures being preferred first. That emphasis, along with the bishops’ fear of violating the reputation of the Church, their interest in detaining their priests, and their disregard for the pain inflicted on the victims, had devastating consequences.

“Each influenced and gave weight to the other, and together they created the thinking among the bishops that the canonical penal system was just not worth the effort,” wrote canon lawyer Nick Cafardi in “Before Dallas” about the US Church’s reckoning the abuse of clergy.




After the scandal publicly exploded in the US, Ireland and Australia in the 1990s and 2000s, in 2001 the Vatican ordered bishops to send all their cases to the Holy See for review to determine how to proceed.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under its then Prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, acted because he saw firsthand that bishops disobeyed the law and transported pedophiles from congregation to congregation rather than sanctioning them.

In the years that followed, more reforms were introduced, including one that allowed priests to be sanctioned and even dismissed in an administrative process rather than full canonical trials, especially when the evidence against them was overwhelming.



The Vatican has long been accused of ignoring the bishops and religious superiors who allowed predatory priests to remain on duty where they could rape and molest again.


While canon law technically allowed punishment for such negligence, it was rarely or never applied. However, in 2019, Francis passed a law expressly requiring bishops and religious superiors to report sex crimes, and outlined how they would be prosecuted if they fail to do so.

The new Code incorporates this law by expressly stating that it is now a crime under canon law to fail to report abuse, with the sanction including removal from office.



The Vatican has long considered any sexual relationship between a priest and an adult to be sinful but consensual, believing that adults are able to give or refuse consent based on their age alone.

But amid the #MeToo movement and scandals in which seminarians and nuns are sexually abused by their superiors, the Vatican has realized that adults can be bullied, especially when there is a power imbalance in the relationship.


Civil law does too, with some jurisdictions believing that sex is without consent when a clergyman takes advantage of a patient’s emotional dependence on him, much like some laws punish a psychiatrist who takes advantage of a patient’s addiction for sexual reasons.

Under the new Vatican law, priests who engage in sexual acts with someone – not just minors or those without reason – can be dismissed if they use “violence, threats or abuse of authority.” Previously, the Vatican only considered it a crime for the priest to use force or threats, and compiled the provision with the sexual abuse of a minor.

It remains to be seen how and if the hierarchy will enforce the measure, as it is difficult to prove an abuse of authority and that another adult fell victim – the same difficulties as in the secular world.

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