Various revisions apply to crimes of sex abuse
Pope Francis has reformed Book VI of the Code of Canon Law with a document called “Pascite gregem Dei” (Tend fthe flock of God) signed May 23 and published on June 1. The changes go into effect December 8.
“In order to respond adequately to the needs of the Church throughout the world,” explains Pope Francis, “it appeared evident that the penal discipline promulgated by St. John Paul II on January 25, 1983 in the Code of Canon Law needed to be revised, and that it required modification in such a way as to allow Pastors to employ it as a more agile salvific and corrective tool, to be applied promptly and with pastoral charity to avoid more serious evils and to soothe the wounds caused by human weakness.”
The Pope recalls that Benedict XVI launched this revision in 2007, a process which engaged “in a spirit of collegiality and cooperation” with Canon Law experts from around the world, as well as with Bishops’ Conferences, major superiors of religious institutes, and Dicasteries of the Roman Curia.
The resulting intense and complex text was submitted to Pope Francis in February 2020.
In his Apostolic Constitution, Pope Francis notes that the Church throughout the centuries has given itself rules of conduct “which unite the People of God and for whose observance the Bishops are responsible.” He also stresses that “charity and mercy require a Father to commit himself also to straightening what at times becomes crooked.”
It is a task, he explains, “which must be carried out as a concrete and inalienable requirement of charity not only towards the Church, the Christian community and possible victims, but also towards those who have committed a crime, who require both mercy and correction from the Church. In the past, much damage has been caused by a lack of perception of the intimate relationship which exists in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse—when circumstances and justice require it—to penal sanctions.”
He says this trend represented a way of thinking which made correction more difficult, “often giving rise to scandal and confusion among the faithful.”
Therefore, adds the Pope, “the negligence of a Pastor in resorting to the penal system demonstrates that he is not fulfilling his function correctly and faithfully.”
In fact, “charity requires that Pastors have recourse to the penal system as often as necessary, keeping in mind the three aims which make it necessary in the ecclesial community, namely, the restoration of the demands of justice, the amendment of the offender, and the reparation of scandals.”
He notes that Book VI has also been improved “from a technical point of view, especially with regard to fundamental aspects of criminal law, such as the right of defense, the statute of limitations for criminal action, and a more precise determination of penalties,” offering “objective criteria in identifying the most appropriate sanction to be applied in a concrete case” and reducing an authority’s discretion, in order to favor ecclesial unity in the application of penalties, “especially for offenses that cause greater damage and scandal in the community.”
Of the 89 canons that make up Book VI, 63 were modified; nine other canons were moved and only 17 remain unchanged.
More firmness on child abuse
Significant changes concern the issue of child abuse. Previously considered in the context of breaking the vow of chastity, this abuse is also seen as an offense against life and “dignity” – as well as human freedom (Title VI).
This concerns sexual abuse committed by clerics on minors but also on people affected by any fragility. The text also includes grooming a minor and the possession or display of child pornography (Can. 1398).
Lay people in the exercise of their ecclesial mission are also affected by this same modification.