Vatican tells bishops to get serious on crime and punishment

Vatican tells bishops to get serious on crime and punishment

Code of Canon Law books for the Latin and Eastern Catholic churches are pictured in Rome at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in this file photo. The 12-year process of updating the Code of Canon Law section dealing with crimes and penalties was necessary "to make it more organic and responsive to new situations and problems," Pope Francis said Feb. 21, 2020. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

On Tuesday the Vatican published a long-awaited revision of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, unveiling a brand-new penal system including a handful of crimes and making punishment for offenses an obligation, rather than a suggestion.

ROME – On Tuesday the Vatican published a long-awaited revision of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, unveiling a brand-new penal system including a handful of new crimes and making punishment for offenses an obligation, rather than a suggestion.

According to officials who worked on the project, the core idea is to overcome the idea that punishment for crime is somehow unmerciful or unpastoral, transforming the administration of justice into a routine feature of the life of the church.

One of the most highly anticipated changes to the code was its language and handling of the crime of sexual abuse, which was previously included under the umbrella of sins committed “against the sixth commandment.”

Under the new version of the code, which was promulgated Tuesday in an apostolic constitution titled Pascite Gregem Dei, or “Tend the Flock,” there is now an entire chapter dedicated to the issue under the title of, “Offenses Against Human Life, Dignity, and Liberty,” meaning that conceptually in Church law, abuse is now considered a crime against human dignity, rather than simply chastity.

The previous version of the code only mentioned the abuse of minors once in Canon 1395, which foresaw punishment for “A cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years.”

In the new version, the reference to minors in Canon 1395 is taken out, and abuse is dealt with in Canon 1398 of the new chapter, which states that a priest who abuses, commits indecent exposure, or even grooms “is to be punished with deprivation of office and with other just penalties, not excluding, where the case calls for it, dismissal from the clerical state.”

Provisions for those abused now include clerics, minors, and the intellectually disabled. The term “vulnerable person,” which is used frequently in abuse prevention efforts, including by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons, does not appear.

Instead, the term used is those with “an imperfect use of reason.” One motive for this is likely that a precise definition for “vulnerable” in this context has yet to be established and is still disputed among experts.

According to Canon 1398, a priest will be punished if he “commits an offence against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with a minor or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason or with one to whom the law recognizes equal protection.”

A priest will also be punished if he “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.”

The new canon also covers pornography, stating that a priest will be punished if he “immorally acquires, retains, exhibits or distributes, in whatever manner and by whatever technology, pornographic images of minors or of persons who habitually have an imperfect use of reason.”

Another novelty in the new chapter is the expansion of the category of abusers, which now includes provisions for non-ordained religious and laypeople, such as a catechist or the head of a lay movement, instead of just priests.

A 12-year project that began in 2009, the revision of Book Six of the Code of Canon Law deals with “Penal Sanctions in the Church.”

This marks the most significant revision to Canon Law since the publication of the most recent version of the Code in 1983, meaning nearly 40 years have elapsed in which three different popes have issued new norms for crimes and punishments which until now had yet to be compiled into a comprehensive text.

Prior to 1983, the most recent version of the Code was published in 1917.

The new version of Book Six contains 88 Cannons – 1311-1399 – most of which have been modified in some way, even if it’s a difference of just one word.

In the new version, one of the smallest yet most significant modifications is a change in phrase for bishops and superiors, telling them that they “must” punish, rather than “can” punish, making the penal code less of a suggestion and more of an active tool at their disposal.

Both Archbishop Filippo Iannone, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and Bishop Juan Arrieta, secretary of the same department, spoke at a June 1 press briefing presenting the modified Chapter Six.

In remarks to journalists, Iannone insisted that “it is charity that requires, in fact, that pastors have recourse to the penal system as often as necessary, bearing in mind the three purposes that make it necessary, namely, the re-establishment of the requirements of justice, the amendment of the offender and the reparation of scandals.”

“The presence inside communities of some irregular situations, but above all the recent scandals, which emerged from the disconcerting and very serious episodes of pedophilia, have…matured the need to reinvigorate canon criminal law,” he said.

According to Arrieta, the reason why a revision of the Vatican’s penal code was so necessary was not just because of the abuse scandals and the need to update it with laws issued since the previous version was released, but primarily because the 1983 version was underdeveloped and left too much in the hands of the bishops, with no clear, universal norm to follow.

The 1983 text, he said, was often “indeterminate, precisely because it was believed that the individual bishops and superiors, who are responsible for applying the penal discipline, would have better established when and how to punish in the most adequate way.”

Many bishops, Arrieta said, had difficulty “in combining the demands of charity with those required by justice. Furthermore, the discrepancy of reactions on the part of the authorities was also a cause for bewilderment in the Christian community.”

At the time the 1983 edition was drafted, the Church’s penal law was considered an instrument to be used only as a last resort, rather than a regular tool of governance to reprimand wrongdoing and prevent more serious crimes from being committed.

In general, the perception over time has been that the previous Code left too much discretion to the bishops, who were often inexperienced in matters of penal law and didn’t know what to do when problems arose.

The fact that ecclesial punishment was generally understood to be a last resort also complicated matters, opening the door for more serious crimes to be committed.

The new version of Book Six clarifies more carefully what the crimes are, what the parameters are for bishops who have to determine and dole out punishments, and how to better protect the Church as a community, meaning any public scandal associated with a crime will also play a factor in what punishment a guilty party receives.

Although many of the changes reflect either small tweaks or the addition of laws that had already been issued by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis that simply had not been added yet, around 6-7 new crimes have been added.

For example, the Code now contains a provision for the crime of failing to report abuse cases to the proper authorities in article six of Cannon 1371. Pope Francis issued legislation requiring mandatory reporting for bishops in 2019, but now there is a law criminalizing the failure to do so.

Other crimes such as ordaining women and recording the conversation during the sacrament of confession, which were already criminalized by John Paul II but had yet to be added to the formal text of the Code of Canon Law, are now included in Book Six.

Some crimes that were present in the 1917 version of the Code but were taken out in the 1983 edition have been added back in, such as sheltering a seminarian who is unable to be ordained due to a mental or psychological disturbance and did not disclose the condition, or another similar reason.

This specific situation is dealt with in article two of Cannon 1388, which states that “A person who comes forward for sacred orders bound by some censure or irregularity which he voluntarily conceals is ipso facto suspended from the order received.”

Pope Francis recently hinted at the problem of unstable men who make their way into seminaries during a conversation with the Italian bishops, warning them about “rigid” seminarians who seem fine but in fact have a slew of problems and, at times, a bad track record in other seminaries.

Several of the changes also have to do with the lawful distribution of property, which is significant given recent scandals involving property deals, such as the Vatican’s purchase of a property in London’s Chelsea district which allegedly drew on Vatican charitable funds, and which incurred major debts.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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