Pope Francis on Tuesday promulgated the apostolic constitution Pascite gregem Dei, replacing Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which codifies the penal law of the Latin Catholic Church. The new version contains a number of important changes to the way in which penalties are applied in the Church, and the crimes which must be punished. It also includes the systematic incorporation of numerous laws promulgated in the Church in recent years, but not directly added to the Code of Canon Law. The project to reform Book VI began, as Francis noted, under Benedict XVI in 2007, and was part of a long series of legal projects aimed at bringing the Church’s penal code up to date after a series of scandals that included the Spotlight scandals of the early 2000s. Officials from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts on Tuesday presented a new text for Book VI in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which deals with "Sanctions in 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.”
Pope Francis has ordered the biggest changes to the Catholic Church's penal code in four decades, which will force bishops to act against clerics who abuse minors and vulnerable adults or else lose office.
The new rules, which have been under negotiation in the Vatican and with cardinals for more than a decade and will come into force in December, will replace the much-criticised code approved by Pope John Paul II in 1983.
The code explicitly accepts that adults, and not only children, can be victimised by priests, while it also orders penalties for offending laypeople, such as principals or teachers in Catholic-run schools, or parish lay staff.
Priests who engage in sexual acts with anyone – not just a minor or one who lacks the use of reason – can be defrocked if they used “force, threats or abuse of his authority” to engage in sexual acts, the code states.
A bishop can be removed from office for culpable negligence or if he fails to report allegations about sexual crimes to church authorities, though there is still no punishment if the bishop fails to report the crime to police.
In 2019 Pope Francis ordered bishops and religious superiors to report sexual crimes to church superiors, but the revised code makes clear that failure to comply is now a crime under canon law, punishable by removal from office.
Under the new version of the code, the constitution titled Pascite Gregem Dei, or “Tend the Flock,” is dedicated to , “Offenses Against Human Life, Dignity, and Liberty,” conceptually in Church law, abuse is now considered a crime against human dignity, rather than simply chastity.