Vatican law criminalizes sexual abuse of adults by priests, laity

Pope Francis has changed church law to explicitly criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by priests who abuse their authority and to say that laypeople who hold church office can be sanctioned for similar sex crimes. The new provisions, released Tuesday after 14 years of study, were contained in the revised criminal law section of the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law. This in-house legal system covers the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic Church. The most significant changes are contained in articles 1395 and 1398, which aim to address significant shortcomings in the church’s handling of sexual abuse. The law recognizes that adults, too, can be victimized by priests who abuse their authority and says that laypeople in church offices can be punished for using minors and adults.


The Vatican also criminalized priests’ “grooming” of minors or vulnerable adults to compel them to engage in pornography. It’s the first time church law has officially recognized as criminal the method used by sexual predators to build relationships with their victims and exploit them then sexually. The law also removes much of the discretion that had long allowed bishops and religious superiors to ignore or cover up abuse, making clear they can be held responsible for omissions and negligence in failing to investigate and sanction errant priests properly.

FILE – In this Nov. 8, 2020 file photo, Pope Francis reads his message during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, file) Since the 1983 code was issued, lawyers and bishops have complained it was utterly inadequate to deal with the sexual abuse of minors since it required time-consuming trials. Meanwhile, victims and their advocates have argued it left too much discretion in the hands of bishops interested in covering up for their priests.

The Vatican issued piecemeal changes over the years to address the problems and loopholes, most significantly requiring all cases to be sent to the Holy See for review and allowing for a more streamlined administrative process to defrock a priest if the evidence against him was overwhelming. More recently, Francis passed new laws to punish bishops and religious superiors who failed to protect their flocks. The new criminal code incorporates those changes and goes beyond them. According to the new law, priests who engage in sexual acts with anyone — not just a minor or someone who lacks the use of reason — can be defrocked if they used “force, threats or abuse of his authority” to engage in sexual acts.


The Vatican has long considered any sexual relations between a priest and an adult as sinful but consensual, believing that adults can offer or refuse consent purely by the nature of their age. The law doesn’t explicitly define which adults are covered, saying only “one to whom the law recognizes equal protection.” but amid the #MeToo movement and scandals of seminarians and nuns being sexually abused by their superiors, the Vatican has realized that adults can be victimized too if they are in a relationship with a power imbalance.

In a novelty aimed at addressing sex crimes committed by laypeople who hold church offices, such as founders of lay religious movements or even church administrators, the new law says laypeople can be similarly punished if they abuse their authority to engage in sexual crimes. That dynamic was most clearly recognized in the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington. Even though the Vatican knew he slept with his seminarians for years, McCarrick was only imprisoned after someone said he had abused him as a youth. Francis defrocked him in 2019.

Since these laypeople can’t be defrocked, penalties include losing their jobs, paying fines, or being removed from their communities. The need for such a provision was made clear in the scandal involving Luis Figari, the lay founder of the Peru-based conservative group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative movement that has 20,000 members and chapters throughout South America and the U.S. An independent investigation concluded he was a paranoid narcissist obsessed with sex and watching his underlings endure pain and humiliation. But the Vatican dithears how to sanction for years him, ultimately deciding to remove him from Peru and isolate him from the community. The new law takes effect on Dec. 8.

Tyson Houlding
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