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RC Church updates canon law to define sexual abuse as a crime against human dignity

03 June 2021

Sexual abuse was previously categorised as a sin committed against adultery


Pope Francis marks the conclusion of the month of prayers for the ending of the pandemic, at the Vatican gardens, on Monday

Pope Francis marks the conclusion of the month of prayers for the ending of the pandemic, at the Vatican gardens, on Monday

THE categorisation of sexual abuse as a crime against human dignity rather than simply chastity is among the revisions to the penal system of the Roman Catholic Church, unveiled on Tuesday.

The new version of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law — the most significant revision to canon law since 1983 — would enable clergy to “avoid more serious evils and to soothe the wounds caused by human weakness”, Pope Francis wrote in the apostolic constitution Pascite gregem Dei (Tend the Flock of God), which introduced the reforms. “In the past, much damage has been caused by a lack of perception of the intimate relationship which exists in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse— when circumstances and justice require it — to penal sanctions.”

This tendency had made correction more difficult, he said, “often giving rise to scandal and confusion among the faithful. . . Charity requires that Pastors have recourse to the penal system as often as necessary, keeping in mind the three aims which make it necessary in the ecclesial community, namely, the restoration of the demands of justice, the amendment of the offender, and the reparation of scandals.”

Analysis by the online newspaper Crux noted that “one of the smallest yet most significant modifications is a change in phrase for bishops and superiors, telling them that they ‘must’ punish, rather than ‘can’ punish, making the penal code less of a suggestion and more of an active tool at their disposal.”

The Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Bishop Juan Arrieta, told a press briefing that bishops had had difficulty “in combining the demands of charity with those required by justice”.

The new text incorporates changes already made in the intervening years, including offences such as the attempted ordination of women and recording of confessions, but also adds a few new offences, including provision for the crime of failing to report abuse cases to the proper authorities.

Sexual abuse was previously categorised as a sin committed “against the sixth commandment” (against adultery). This was criticised by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), which published its final report last year (News, 18 December 2020), and change was requested by the RC bishops of England and Wales.

Abuse is now covered in a new chapter, “Offences Against Human Life, Dignity, and Liberty”. This states that a priest who abuses, commits indecent exposure, or grooms, “is to be punished with deprivation of office and with other just penalties, not excluding, where the case calls for it, dismissal from the clerical state”. It still describes the offences as being “against the sixth commandment”.

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