TP O'Mahony: Vatican breathlessly playing catch-up on sex abuse

A revision of the Code of Canon Law proposes changes to the language and handling of the crime of sex abuse. If the culture in the Vatican remains the same, however, then inevitably there will be further frustration
TP O'Mahony: Vatican breathlessly playing catch-up on sex abuse

Under the new version of the code, which was promulgated on June 1 in an apostolic constitution from Pope Francis entitled Pascite Gregem Dei (Tend the Flock), there is now an entire chapter dedicated to the issue under the title of 'Offences against human life, dignity, and liberty'. Photo: Giuseppe Lami/AP

Twelve years after the devastating Murphy report, six years after the defrocking of cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Washington DC, and three years after 34 bishops in Chile offered to resign over cover-ups, the Vatican is still breathlessly playing catch-up on remedies for the clerical sex abuse crisis that has engulfed the Catholic Church worldwide.

The latest attempt — a long-awaited revision of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law dealing with sanctions and punishments — has proposed changes to the language and handling of the crime of sex abuse which had previously been included under the umbrella of sins committed “against the sixth commandment”.

Under the new version of the code, which was promulgated on June 1 in an apostolic constitution from Pope Francis entitled Pascite Gregem Dei (Tend the Flock), there is now an entire chapter dedicated to the issue under the title of 'Offences against human life, dignity, and liberty'.

In other words, Church law will henceforth ensure that sexual abuse will now be considered a crime against human dignity rather than a sin against chastity. But while the criminalisation of the sexual abuse of minors and adults is to be welcomed, it is coming very late in the day and has already drawn criticism from some victims of abuse for not going far enough.

In the new version of the code (where abuse is dealt with in Canon 1398) it is stated that a priest who abuses, commits indecent exposure, or even grooms a minor “is to be punished with deprivation of office, and with other penalties, not excluding, where the case calls for it, dismissal from the clerical state”.

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”.

Expansion in category of abusers

Another novelty in the new code is the expansion in 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.

New parameters have also been set for bishops, limiting their discretion in handling allegations of abuse. They have to determine appropriate punishments for abusers but must also determine how to better protect the Church as a community, which means any public scandal associated with a crime will also be a factor when it comes to framing punishments.

Importantly, the code now specifies a crime for failing to report abuse cases to the proper authorities. This is contained in article six of Canon 1371. Pope Francis issued an instruction requiring mandatory reporting for bishops in 2019, but there is now a law criminalising failure to do so.

According to Elise Ann Allen of Crux, the Catholic news agency, the latest revision of the code, a 12-year project which began in 2009, is the most sweeping to date. “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.” 

One matter, outside of the category of sex abuse, concerns the ordination of women. 

For the first time, the Code of Canon Law contains a prohibition on the ordination of women and stresses that anyone doing so will face automatic excommunication.

The key question remains: Will the latest changes, while welcome, have any significant impact?

The tougher sanctions and punishments for clerics who abuse minors, and the introduction of some limitations to be placed on the discretion of bishops in how they respond to and handle allegations of abuse and frame punishments, plus the move to criminalise the “grooming” of minors and vulnerable adults by priests who compel them to engage in pornography — these are all steps in the right direction.

But does the revised code go far enough? And will the changes stem the avalanche of cases of abuse? And where is the urgency? The new reforms will not come into effect until December 8 — why the delay?

Crisis stretches over three pontificates

Pope John Paul II blesses cardinals and pilgrims in St Peter's Basilica in 2004. File picture: Getty Images
Pope John Paul II blesses cardinals and pilgrims in St Peter's Basilica in 2004. File picture: Getty Images

It is sometimes forgotten that the clerical sex crisis, which has severely damaged the moral credibility of the Catholic Church globally, and which shows no sign of diminishing, stretches back over three pontificates — those of John Paul II (1978-2005), Benedict XVI (2005-2013), and Francis, who has been Pope since 2013.

The history of clerical sex abuse of minors is much older, of course; some accusations on record date from the 1950s and even further back, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that molestation by priests was first given significant media attention after high-profile cases in the US and Canada.

From the outset, the policy adopted and promoted internally by the Vatican — which manifested itself in a catalogue of denial, evasion, lies, and cover-up — was to ensure at all costs that the protection of the institution, not the victims, was to be in all cases the primary objective.

But at no time since the scourge of clerical sex abuse became a recurring scandal in country after country has there been any acknowledgement by the Vatican that Rome was the source of this shameful and essentially criminal policy.

It was brought home to Irish Catholics, following the publication of the Murphy report, in the pathetic pastoral letter from Pope Benedict published on March 19, 2010, and which eschewed all responsibility for the shocking revelations about child sex abuse and cover-up in the Dublin Archdiocese.

This letter, addressed to “Irish Catholics", seemed to treat what had happened in Ireland as a purely internal matter and not as something that, by 2010, was very much part of a universal pattern of abuse. There was no recognition at all of any Vatican responsibility for the creation of a culture which led to widespread criminal behaviour on the part not just of priests but bishops as well.

As for the latest reforms, there is already a feeling among victims that Rome did not go far enough. “Unfortunately, we are still far from zero tolerance,” Marie Collins, who suffered abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese, told La Croix, the French national Catholic daily.

After the publication of the Murphy report, she was invited to join the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in Rome, but eventually resigned in frustration over the lack of action. 

Legalistic changes, such as we now have in the revised Code of Canon Law, are all very fine — but if the culture in the Vatican remains the same, then inevitably there will be further frustration.

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