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Papal Progress? - The Rewriting of Catholic Church Laws On Clerical Abuse

In a historic move, Pope Francis has stiffened the penalties for abusive priests.

For decades now, the Catholic Church has been besieged by incidents of priests sexually abusing children. To that end, at the beginning of June 2021, Pope Francis signed into church law the biggest overhaul of the criminal code in 40 years. This has been long overdue. The church has faced an avalanche of reports of abuse of minors at the hands of priests, but the issue was either ignored or covered up. Yet, so great was the number of cases that the church has finally been forced to act and introduce laws that will protect the youngest members of their flock and punish those who abuse them.


The essence of the changes introduced by Francis involved clarifying the penalties for the sexual abuse of minors. This entails priests being deprived of office and potentially being defrocked, otherwise known as laicisation whereby priests are dismissed from the clerical state. Further to this, the church has adapted its stance on who can be subjected to abuse. Previously, adults had not been included, with the church deeming that abuse could only happen to children since an adult could withdraw their consent. Now, a priest can be subject to punishment if they use force, threats or abuse of his authority to precipitate any

Therefore, the scope for accusing a priest of sexual abuse has been expanded. On a similar note, the new code has strengthened the rules for laypeople working within the Catholic Church concerning abuse. Now, these individuals are liable to losing their jobs, fines or even being removed from their communities.


Based on all this, it could be asked why there is still criticism of the church over their behaviour on sexual abuse. Surely their recent steps have constituted a major step towards safeguarding members of the Catholic community? Granted, these measures are an improvement, considering that the previous laws were last modified in 1983 by Pope John Paul II. However, it is important to note that all these moves still keep the matter of sex abuse within the jurisdiction of the church rather than the law. As a result, questions remain over whether these laws can be effectively implemented. It remains the decision of those within the church to report cases of abuse.


Aside from the abuse itself, it was the collective failure on behalf of church officials to report abuse that has led to this becoming a crisis within the church. In this regard, Pope Francis has looked to reduce the possibility of this occurring by introducing the charge of negligence against high-ranking church officials who ignore or cover up abuse.


Yet, upon examination of the section of the canon law that applies specifically to the coverup of abuse (can. 1336 §§ 2-4), it can be seen that penalties come under the general rubric of expiatory penalties. This means that the punishments require the perpetrator to make atonement for their wrongdoing. However, it is no guarantee that this will result in deprivation of offices, duties, ministries and functions or removal of some right or privilege or insignia or title. The most extreme punishment would be dismissal from the clerical state.


Furthermore, absent from these new regulations is the requirement of church officials to report instances of abuse to the civil authorities, under the reasoning that:


‘[the Catholic Church] is a global institution, and in many countries such reporting would expose accused clergy to great harm.’


It is reasoning such as this that somewhat undermines the progress that appears to have been made. Evidently, there remains a certain desire among church officials to have some measures in place that provide some protection against wider scrutiny. In turn, it casts further doubt on whether the new requirements of church officials will be effectively implemented. This same doubt was articulated by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP):


‘We hope that the Catholic officials take this change seriously and implement changes immediately. The changes announced by the Vatican are only as good as their enforcement, and we hope that Pope Francis and his fellow Church leaders will act swiftly to punish prelates who refuse to recognise these new updates and take appropriate steps to inform communities about abusers and make changes that will better protect vulnerable adults within the Church’s care.’


The section to highlight in particular is that the ‘changes announced by the Vatican are only as good as their enforcement’. This remains the concern of those who maintain reservations over whether this is truly a watershed moment in the continued fight against clerical abuse. Even amidst the significant changes to the code, it cannot be ignored that the clerical abuse continues to be dealt with in the cosseted setting of the church.


Such doubts cannot easily be dispelled. The church’s track record on abuse does not instil confidence that this rewrite of church regulations will bring about the reform of which the Catholic Church has long been in dire need. Indeed, the arrival of the new abuse laws has come 40 years too late. As a result, there needs to be continuous evolution of these laws. The church can no longer answerable to god alone. It must be the collective responsibility of Catholics across the world to hold themselves and members of their