Cardinal says Church law on abuse will need ‘continuous updating’

Cardinal says Church law on abuse will need ‘continuous updating’

In a file photo, Pope Francis walks next to Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias as he leaves the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2014. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

Cardinal Oswald Gracias says the Church was trying to “answer present-day needs” when it revised the section on canon law dealing with penal matters.

MUMBAI, India – Cardinal Oswald Gracias says the Church was trying to “answer present-day needs” when it revised the section on canon law dealing with penal matters, but also noted Church law on abuse will need “continuous updating.”

Under the new version of the code promulgated at the beginning of the month, there is new chapter on “Offenses Against Human Life, Dignity, and Liberty,” covering matters of abuse.

Church law now demands, rather than suggests, a person guilty of abuse be punished “with deprivation of office and with other just penalties,” and includes new categories including grooming, and child pornography.

The law not only covers the abuse of minors, but also those with the “imperfect use of reason,” and says non-ordained religious and lay people can be punished under the law.

It is the first major change to the Code of Canon Law since it came out in 1983.

Gracias is the archbishop of Bombay and a member of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinal Advisors. He was also asked by the pontiff to serve on a task force for the implementation of child protect provisions in local churches, and was involved in the drafting process changing the code of canon law.

“When [the 1983 Code of Canon Law] was drafted, the part of sexual abuse was not there at all. The law has always got to be contextual to answer the felt need. At that time, it was not a felt need but so much has happened since then,” Gracias told Crux.

The cardinal said in making changes to the law, Francis was building on the work of his predecessors.

“St. John Paul began by saying we must take it seriously and Pope Benedict brought in laws both as Prefect of the Congregation and later on as the Holy Father. He brought in laws obliging to take care and obliging to report, to avoid both abuse and cover-ups. We tried to refine it over and over again,” he explained.

“Pope Francis has at different stages taken steps which again for avoiding cover-ups and avoiding abuse and taking care of victims and ensuring justice so that there is no abuse of the law.”

Since his election has pope, Francis has issued several laws dealing with clerical sexual abuse, accountability, and abuse cover up. Most significant was Vos Estis Lux Mundi, the 2019 papal legislation reforming the procedures for dealing with abuse and holding bishops and religious superiors accountable for their actions in responding to allegations of abuse.

“We had to integrate this into canon law, as this was going beyond canon law. This is practically what is being done. I would like to say that at the ground level there will not be much change as this has already been enforced by the Holy Father, Pope Francis,” Gracias said.

The cardinal pointed to the importance of adding grooming behavior to the legislation, but admitted the term will have to be better defined over time.

“Grooming is preparation. Preparing people before. This is a part of the whole process of preparation. That is also seen as a preparation for abuse. We have seen that it happens sometimes consciously or subconsciously. That is a red signal,” he said.

“In the legal point of view, it is already in the mind. How would you objectively assess grooming as ‘grooming’ or a genuine desire to be kind and pastoral? We do not know. Cultivating is another word. How do we analyze and identify cultivating and separate it from being genuinely friendly?  That is something which has jurisprudence and that is why, will need continuous updating,” Gracias added.

He also pointed to the section on people with “imperfect use of reason,” which means vulnerable adults are now covered under Church abuse legislation.

“We have something new called vulnerable adults. This is added to the minors. We will need to define it. It refers to one who is mentally not strong. Would a professional superiority mean a vulnerable adult? How far can you go without exaggerating? We will have to study and analyze this law and improve it surely,” Gracias said.

As for the implementation of the legislation, and child protection in general, Gracias noted that in India, he is starting a national center for the bishops’ conference in Mumbai.

“I am having Zoom meetings which have already started, chaired by me. Sister Arina Gonsalves [a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors] will be the secretary. This will be for safeguarding,” he said.

Gracias said they will also have a website under the auspices of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India to help facilitate the protection of minors.

“I will, however, throw it open to other neighboring countries also. The Philippines may also have an office. It will be an international group of people. There will be an audit of how things are, what are the systems in dioceses, how to help the victims etc. We will begin straight away,” he said.

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