Pope Francis on Tuesday updated the Catholic Church’s penal code and added guidelines on punishing sexual abuse crimes against minors by priests long sought by activists against pedophilia.
Review of the criminal sanctions in the Code of Canon Law followed a lengthy process with input from canonist and criminal law experts and came after repeated complaints from victims of sexual abuse and others that the earlier wording of the code was outdated and obscure.
The purpose of the review, Francis wrote when introducing the changes, is “restoration of justice, reform of the offender and restoration of the scandal.”
Since becoming Pope in 2013, the Argentine Pope has made efforts to address decades of sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests around the world, although many anti-pedophilia activists insist that much more needs to be done.
In 2019, he convened an unprecedented summit on religious sexual abuse and lifted confidentiality rules that, among other things, stood in the way of the investigation into the abuse of priests.
The new code does not explicitly target sexual offenses against minors, but refers to violations of the Sixth Commandment, which forbids adultery.
A priest should be stripped of office and punished “with other just punishments” if he commits such offenses with a minor, the new code says.
Likewise, a priest who takes care of or induces a minor to “expose himself or herself to pornography or participate in pornographic exhibitions” will be similarly punished.
Need for justice
One of the goals of the review, Francis wrote, was to reduce the number of sentences left to the discretion of the judges, especially in the most serious cases.
“The new text introduces several changes to the law in force and punishes a number of new offenses, responding to the increasingly widespread need in different communities to restore justice and order that has shattered crime,” he wrote.
Other technical improvements related to “the right of defense, the limitation period for criminal actions, a more precise determination of penalties,” Francis added.
The changes will take effect in December.
Despite recent measures to eradicate priest abuse and increase transparency, some victims say the Vatican has still not gone far enough to protect children, even in the West, where intensive media coverage of pedophile priests has resulted to more research into ecclesiastical practices.