Pope Francis has changed church law to explicitly criminalise the sexual abuse of adults by priests who abuse their authority and to say that laypeople who hold church office can be sanctioned for similar sex crimes.
The new provisions, released on Tuesday after 14 years of study, were contained in the revised criminal law section of the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, the in-house legal system that covers the 1.3-billion strong Catholic Church.
The most significant changes are contained in two articles, 1395 and 1398, which aim to address major shortcomings in the church’s handling of sexual abuse.
The law recognises that adults, too, can be victimised by priests who abuse their authority, and said that laypeople in church offices can be punished for abusing minors as well as adults.
The Vatican also criminalised the “grooming” of minors or vulnerable adults by priests to compel them to engage in pornography.
It is the first time church law has officially recognised as criminal the method used by sexual predators to build relationships with their victims to then sexually exploit them.
The law also removes much of the discretion that had long allowed bishops and religious superiors to ignore or cover-up abuse, making clear they can be held responsible for omissions and negligence in failing to properly investigate and sanction errant priests.
Ever since the 1983 code was issued, lawyers and bishops have complained it was completely inadequate to deal with the sexual abuse of minors, since it required time-consuming trials.
Victims and their advocates, meanwhile, have argued it left too much discretion in the hands of bishops who had an interest in covering up for their priests.
The Vatican issued piecemeal changes over the years to address the problems and loopholes, most significantly requiring all cases to be sent to the Holy See for review and allowing for a more streamlined administrative process to defrock a priest if the evidence against him was overwhelming.
More recently, Francis passed laws to punish bishops and religious superiors who failed to protect their flocks. The new criminal code incorporates those changes and goes beyond them.
According the new law, priests who engage in sexual acts with anyone — not just a minor or someone who lacks the use of reason — can be defrocked if they used “force, threats or abuse of his authority” to engage in sexual acts.
The law does not explicitly define which adults are covered, saying only “one to whom the law recognises equal protection”.
In a novelty aimed at addressing sex crimes committed by laypeople who hold church offices, such as founders of lay religious movements or even church administrators, the law says laypeople can be similarly punished if they abuse their authority to engage in sexual crimes.
Since these laypeople cannot be defrocked, penalties include losing their jobs, paying fines or being removed from their communities.
The need for such a provision was made clear in the scandal involving the lay founder of the Peru-based conservative group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative movement that has 20,000 members and chapters throughout South America and the US.
An independent investigation concluded he was a paranoid narcissist obsessed with sex and watching his underlings endure pain and humiliation. But the Vatican dithered for years on how to sanction him, ultimately deciding to remove him from Peru and isolate him from the community.
The new law goes into effect on December 8.