Vatican tightens but doesn’t close accountability loopholes
New canon laws criminalize grooming and sexual abuse against adults
Anne Barrett Doyle began documenting clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in 2003, one year after the Boston Globe reported that church leaders had systematically moved pedophile priests from parish to parish despite repeated allegations of sexual abuse.
Doyle, a Catholic mother of four in Massachusetts, co-directs Bishop Accountability, now the largest public database of public reports spanning decades on the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis.
In a long-awaited response to the church’s mishandling of clerical sexual abuse, the Vatican on Tuesday published 21 pages of revisions to the criminal section of its legal code. The changes explicitly criminalize sexual abuse of adults by priests and hold lay people with church positions punishable for abusing minors and adults.
The changes to the Vatican Code of Canon Law, the internal legal system governing the 1.3 billion–member Catholic Church, come after 14 years of study and nearly two decades after the Boston Globe report prompted widespread criminal charges of Catholic clergy.
The Vatican last updated the code in 1983, and church authorities, attorneys, victims, and advocates have sparred ever since over how much discretion it gives to bishops, who could have a vested interest in covering up abuse by their priests.
The new revisions, set to take effect Dec. 8, criminalize priests grooming children or vulnerable adults to coerce them to participate in pornography, marking the first time the Vatican has officially recognized a criminal method that sexual predators use to target victims for sexual exploitation.
“These are good changes, but they only nibble away at the edges of the crisis,” Doyle said. “It’s not just disappointing … it’s heartbreaking. They have known what is needed to stop the abuse and obviously chose not to do anything bold or fundamental.”
In many ways, the revisions formalize reforms Pope Francis and other popes have already made to address clerical sex abuse. Most recently, the Vatican released a handbook for clergy and church lawyers last year. Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter in 2019 instructing church officials to report suspected cases of sexual abuse to civil authorities in places where local law required them to do so.
Doyle said the church should have a universal zero-tolerance rule for priests found guilty of child sexual abuse that prohibits them from continuing in ministry. It also should not tolerate enablers such as bishops and church officials found guilty of covering up abuse. The church also has yet to mandate reporting child sexual abuse to civil authorities, so in countries and states without laws requiring mandatory reporting, clerical abuse continues to go unchecked. In the United States, more than half of the states have mandatory reporting laws that include clergy members, according to Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Still, some see the Vatican’s reforms as a positive step forward.
“Any step that is taken to strengthen accountability for abusive actions by priests, pastors, or other leaders, whether that abuse is toward women, toward men, toward children, or toward anyone who is vulnerable or marginalized, is an action worthy of praise,” said Pete Singer, executive director of GRACE, an organization helping Christian communities respond to abuse.