Pope Francis has announced sweeping changes to the church’s Code of Canon Law specifically concerning the sexual abuse of adults by priests and laity. In a major shift reflecting societal norms, the Pope made the sexual abuse of adults a crime rather than a sin. In classifying it as a crime, the Pope opened the pathway for canonical punishments to be meted out to the guilty parties of such crimes.
The revision of “Book VI: Penal Sanctions in the Church,” one of seven books that make up the code for the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, was promulgated June 1 and will go into effect Dec. 8, Pope Francis wrote.
Rewriting 63 of the book’s 89 canons, the revision addresses a host of issues that have come up in the life of the church since St. John Paul II promulgated the code in 1983. The descriptions of crimes of sexual abuse, including child pornography, are more explicit, and the required actions of a bishop or superior of a religious order in handling allegations are more stringent.
The revision moves the canons about the sexual abuse of children — on the part of a priest, religious or layperson working for the church — out of the section on violations of the obligation of celibacy and into a newly titled section of “Offenses Against Human Life, Dignity and Liberty.”
It adds to canon law the crime of “grooming,” calling for penalties, including dismissal from the priesthood for a cleric who “grooms or induces a minor or a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason or one to whom the law recognizes equal protection to expose himself or herself pornographically or to take part in pornographic exhibitions, whether real or simulated.”
While these revisions have been widely hailed by survivor advocates, some have pointed to the obvious issue concerning enforceability.
The Rev. Hans Zollner, one of the leading church authorities on sexual abuse, said that the inclusion of adults in the new laws “is in line with the development over the last four years” of the #MeToo movement and the attention given to the abuse of adult seminarians, particularly in light of the revelations concerning former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
But he said that the new law’s broad definition of the adults who may be subjected to the abuse of power by clerics and laypeople was insufficiently clear.
The problem, he said, is “if everyone can claim to be abused in any situation, how do you prove that? It is very foggy.” He added, “Some things aren’t as clear as you think or may wish for them to be.”
Zollner’s questions are particularly relevant concerning the issue of grooming. After the commission of sexual abuse, it is quite clear what constitutes grooming behavior. However, how does one define grooming before an overt act of abuse or in the absence of abuse? These are tough questions that have moral and pastoral implications for the church. In all likelihood, the interpretation and implementation of these revisions will be left to the discretion of the world’s Catholic bishops so there will most likely be a wide divergence of interpretation and enforcement.
In the final analysis, a law change means nothing unless criminal (canonical crimes that is) charges are filed and punishments are meted out. It is one thing to have a law enacted and quite another to enforce it.
Admitted to practice law in all federal multidistrict litigation courts, the California State Bar and the Florida Bar. His philosophy is to provide aggressive, quality representations and seek fair compensation for individuals and their families who have suffered injury, death, or sexual abuse.