VATICAN CITY (AP) — 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, the in-house legal system that covers the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic Church.
The most significant changes are contained in two articles, 1395 and 1398, which aim to address major 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 said that laypeople in church offices can be punished for abusing minors as well as adults.
The Vatican also criminalized the “grooming” of minors or vulnerable adults by priests 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 to then sexually exploit them.
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 properly investigate and sanction errant priests.