The Catholic Church is changing its laws to explicitly criminalise sexual abuse of adults by priests, and to include laypeople who hold church office in sanctions for similar crimes.
Aiming to address the church’s handling of sexual abuse, the law will recognise adults can also be victimised by priests who abuse their position of authority.
Non-clergy employees, such as school principals and parish economists, will also be liable for punishment for abusing adults or children.
Announced by the Vatican on Tuesday, the changes come after 14 years of study, with new provisions in the criminal law section of the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, the in-house legal system of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis approved the changes to the law, which will also criminalise the grooming of minors or vulnerable adults by priests to compel them to engage in pornography.
It’s 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.
But while a bishop could be removed from office for “culpable negligence” or failing to report sex crimes to church authorities, there is no punishment in the law if he fails to report the crime to the police.
Recently Pope Francis passed new laws punishing bishops and senior members of the church who failed to protect their followers, and the new criminal code incorporates those changes.
According to 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.
Ever since the 1983 Code was first 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, argued it left too much discretion in the hands of bishops who had an interest in covering up for their priests.
The Vatican has been making small changes over the years to address the problems and loopholes.
The changes come following the #MeToo movement, in which the Church had its own reckoning – this time with abuse of adults by people in positions of responsibility.
The Vatican has long considered sexual relations between a priest and an adult as sinful but consensual.
But it appears to have had a rethink following the scandal over the ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.
Even though the Vatican knew for years he slept with his seminarians, McCarrick was only put on trial after someone came forward saying he had abused him as a youth.
Pope Francis eventually defrocked him in 2019.