July 29, 2021

The criminal law of the Catholic Church adapts to sexual violence

It is now the new canon 1398. After three stormy years in the present pontificate, three decades of scandalous revelations in the Catholic Church and fourteen years of legislative work, sexual violence against minors or vulnerable adults is finally entering , as such, in the book of canon law – the internal law of the ecclesial institution, independent of the law of each State – devoted to offenses and their sanctions. This is one of the main novelties of the revised version of Book VI, promulgated by Pope Francis, Tuesday 1is June, and which will come into effect on December 8.

The previous text dated from 1983. The sexual relations of a cleric with a minor were not considered there as a crime in itself, but as a simple variant of an infringement of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue – “You will not commit adultery”, caught between an illegal marriage and a violation of a residency obligation. The total confusion of registers (sin, criminal, regulatory, moral …) had long been considered by victims and their associations as a component of the blindness maintained in the face of sexual violence against minors and vulnerable people in the Catholic Church. Significantly, the new article was inserted not in the section relating to “Special obligations” clerics, like celibacy, but in that which deals with “Crimes against life, liberty and human dignity”, alongside murder and abortion.

Reporting obligation

For the first time also, the new book VI of the code of canon law makes it possible to criminalize sexual relations with adults. “Protected” by civil law but also (canon 1395, paragraph 2) obtained by “Violence”, ” threat “ or “Abuse of authority”. This is particularly aimed at people linked by hierarchical relationships, such as in religious congregations, seminaries or a simple parish. This concerns the actions not only of clerics, but also of lay people, that is to say “Any believer who enjoys a dignity or fulfills an office or a function in the Church”, at the parish, diocesan or other level. Sanctions are also foreseen against the holders of child pornography images.

Read also Pope Francis forces clergy to report sexual assault to Church justice

The creation of these specific crimes of sexual violence against minors or vulnerable persons or under authority is not the first reform decided by Pope Francis in the matter of sexual violence. In June 2019, his motu proprio (decree) You are the light of the world had thus organized, “On an experimental basis, for three years”, the obligation for clerics to report cases of which they come to be informed. The new drafting of Book VI presented on Tuesday takes over and creates a new offense of non-denunciation opposable to people who fail to report an offense to their hierarchy while they are required to do so. In general, it holds responsible persons in a position of authority who have failed in their mission of supervision and sanction.

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