Pedophilia, corruption… The Church is reforming its criminal law

It is one of those Vatican reforms that tend to be forgotten because they were launched so long ago. And yet, it is a very profound modification of canon law, the internal law of the Church, that the Vatican made public on Tuesday 1er June, at the end of a project launched in 2007 by Benedict XVI and which comes into force on Wednesday, December 8. Pedophilia, fight against corruption, application of penalties, limitation periods … With this apostolic constitution, entitled Pascite gregem dei (“Be the shepherds of the flock of God”), the Pope goes well beyond a simple grooming of Book VI which provides, within the code of canon law of 1983, the system of sanctions of the internal law of the Church.

→ CONTEXT. Sexual abuse: the Church will include in its law an article on “crimes against minors”

The most salient point is the creation of a specific article on sexual abuse committed by priests against minors or people in a state of weakness, with a limitation period of twenty years. Canon 1398 thus provides that any priest committing a sexual offense “With a minor or a person habitually affected by an imperfect use of reason or with a person to whom the law recognizes similar protection” could be sanctioned or even excluded from the priesthood.

These crimes are now placed in a section on “Crimes against human life, dignity and freedom”, and no longer, as before, in the much broader framework of faults against chastity committed by priests. New fact, these penalties are also broadened to the consultation or the diffusion of child pornography images or to “Real or simulated pornographic exhibition” from priests.

“The change is significant, especially in the area of ​​abuse”

The Church goes one step further by opening up the possibility of punishing also religious and lay people in this matter. Anyone, priest or not, committing sexual abuse of a minor may therefore be relieved of his office or his function in the Church. “The change is significant, especially in the area of ​​abuse”, emphasizes canonist Claudia Giampietro, who works at the International Union of Superiors General (UISG). This substantial change in fact responds to the demands made by victims in recent years, who demanded that vulnerable adults be included in the code of canon law. “This gave rise to discussions among canonists on the difficulty of formulating the concept of vulnerability in legal terms”, adds Claudia Giampietro.

→ TESTIMONIAL. “For us, the Gospel has remained a dead letter”, the cry of revolt of a father

Among the victims, some believe, however, that Rome does not yet go far enough. “Alas, we are still far from zero tolerance”, laments Mary Collins, interviewed by The cross. Former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors from which she finally resigned, she calls for an automatic exclusion of delinquent priests. “It is clear that the decision to exclude or not the faulty priest is left to the appreciation of each one”, she laments.

“We must take into account the proportionality of the sentence”

“The offenses covered by this canon can be very different, and the proportionality of the sentence must be taken into account”, replied to journalists Archbishop Filippo Iannone, who has chaired, since 2018, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, responsible for this reform. “An automatic sentence would not make sense. It is a principle of justice ”, he continued, assuming a case-by-case review by the judge. But the overhaul of canon law approved by the Pope goes far beyond the issues of sex crimes against minors. “It is a question of engaging in new and concrete ways to translate the obligation of being accountable, and to apply in the code of canon law the responsibility and the transparency”, summarizes Claudia Giampietro.

New crimes

The reform introduces, for example, new offenses, such as the violation of pontifical secrecy, explicitly mentioned, or various measures against corruption. The one “Who gives or promises anything so that someone exercising an office or an office in the Church does or omits to do something illegitimately” is thus liable to sanctions, depending on the seriousness of his fault, which may go as far as the ban on celebrating Mass. The same for everything “Cleric or religious” committing an economic offense.

One of the main lines of this text is to develop a judicial system that is much more precise than it was previously. This is the case of “Penaltiesexpiatories ” applicable to an offender, specifically listed. Among them, there are many possibilities made available to the judge, ranging, for a priest, from house arrest to dismissal from the clerical state, through the prohibition of wearing the religious habit.

An adapted instrument

It is in this context that the possibility of imposing “a fine or a sum of money for the purposes of the Church” emerges. A penalty already applied in certain ecclesiastical courts – via the obligation to make a donation to a Catholic association -, but which clearly makes it possible to supply diocesan or national funds intended for victims. Another novelty: those who “attempt” to ordain a woman priest incur excommunication. This prohibition, although real, was not made explicit in the 1983 code.

→ ANALYSIS. In the face of sexual abuse, the Church deepens its examination of conscience

“This reform does not change the basic principles which until then governed criminal law, but it makes it an efficient and suitable instrument for the protection of the faithful in the Church”, analyzes Father Bruno Gonçalves, professor of penal law at the Faculty of Canon Law of the Catholic Institute of Paris. “We took up all this part of canon law, we reordered it, so as to facilitate its reading and understanding”, he adds.

“There is a desire to make these provisions more applicable,” notes the canonist. We also see it with the insistence on the concept of repairing scandals, which permeates all this new book VI. “ Likewise, the new code now forces a bishop to carry out a sentence pronounced by an ecclesiastical court, under penalty of sanction.

New obligations for bishops

The bishops now have the obligation to initiate legal proceedings against a priest who did not take into account his reprimands, whereas before that it was a simple possibility.

Another sign of hardening, noted by Father Gonçalves: in some cases, judges now have the obligation to increase their penalties, whereas previously it was only an option for them.

This is particularly the case when the offense was committed by a person “Who has abused his authority or his office to commit an offense”. One way to systematically punish more harshly abuses of authority, especially in cases of spiritual abuse, in relationships marked by influence.

→ MAINTENANCE.Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort: “Our commitment against abuse is lasting and determined”

After more than thirteen years of work, it remains to apply these important changes. This will be done from December 8, the symbolic date on which the Catholic Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception.


7,000 victims supported in Ireland for twenty-five years

Since 1996, the Towards Healing program (Towards Healing, Editor’s note) has come to the aid of 7,000 victims of physical or sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, revealed its director, the Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh Mgr Michael Router, Sunday, May 30 during the Holy Trinity Mass. Funded by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, this program advises survivors and their families and connects them with psychologists. Ireland is one of the countries most affected by the scourge of sexual abuse: at least 14,500 children have been victims in a few decades.


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