Pope Francis has ordered the biggest changes to the Catholic Church’s penal code in four decades, which will force bishops to take action against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults or else lose office.
The new rules, which have been under negotiation in the Vatican and with cardinals for more than a decade and will come into force in December, will replace the much-criticised code approved by Pope John Paul II in 1983.
The code explicitly accepts that adults, and not only children, can be victimised by priests, while it also orders penalties for offending laypeople, such as principals or teachers in Catholic-run schools, or parish lay staff.
Priests who engage in sexual acts with anyone – not just a minor or one 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 code states.
“A member of an institute of consecrated life or of a society of apostolic life, or any one of the faithful who enjoys a dignity or performs an office or function in the church, who commits sexual abuse is to be punished according to the gravity of the offence,” it reads.
Laypeople cannot be defrocked, but they could be subjected to losing their jobs, facing heavy fines or being removed from their communities, under the changes made to chapter VI of the church’s centuries old body of canon law.
Archbishop Filippo Iannone, head of the Vatican department that led the revisions, said there had been “a climate of excessive slack” in the church, where some bishops sometimes put mercy for offending priests before justice.
The code also criminalises for the first time the grooming of minors or vulnerable adults by forcing the victims to watch pornography, which is often used by paedophiles as a way to build ties to a victim before exploiting them.
A bishop can be removed from office for culpable negligence or if he fails to report allegations about sexual crimes to church authorities, though there is still no punishment if the bishop fails to report the crime to police.
In 2019 Pope Francis ordered bishops and religious superiors to report sexual crimes to church superiors, but the revised code makes clear that failure to comply is now a crime under canon law, punishable by removal from office.