The Vatican announced Tuesday an overhaul of the Catholic Church’s internal penal system, including a significant rewrite of the church’s legal framework for dealing with sexual abuse of minors. The aim of the new expanded law on abuse is to clarify and simply the procedure for dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, particularly involving minors, a process that was previously left to the discretion of senior church officials. That lack of clear structure under the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law to adjudicate such allegations has exacerbated and perpetuated church’s failure to protect children over the past several decades, creating a culture of secrecy, where the word of offending clergy was given more weight than victims and abusive priests were often recirculated by senior bishops and cardinals, rather than punished.
The revision of the canonical law—the most significant in four decades—builds upon new rules established in 2019 on reporting and investigating allegations of sexual abuse, establishing new penalties and clarifying sentencing. “The new laws state that clerics who abuse minors or other vulnerable people be punished with ‘deprivation from office,’ and potentially with defrocking. Previously, the church had only said such cases merit ‘just penalties,’ not excluding defrocking,” the Washington Post notes. “In addition, the church also explicitly criminalized the grooming of minors for participation in pornography, as well as the acquisition and distribution of child pornography. The new laws also state that laypeople in positions of power can be punished for abuse as well.”
“The new guidelines remove the discretion given to bishops and other church leaders that allowed for offenders to sidestep accountability and church authorities to cover up abuse,” the New York Times notes. “The new law makes clear that the failure to investigate and punish offending priests will have consequences, and seeks to speed up a process that victims and their advocates have criticized as lengthy and cumbersome.”