Code of Canon Law | The Vatican explicitly inscribes child crime

Code of Canon Law | The Vatican explicitly inscribes child crime
Code of Canon Law | The Vatican explicitly inscribes child crime

(Vatican City) The Catholic Church on Tuesday included for the first time in its domestic law an explicit article on sexual crimes committed by priests against minors, an addition long demanded by victims of pedophilia.

Posted on 1is June 2021 at 9:47 am

Catherine MARCIANO
France Media Agency

The Code of Canon Law – which governs the Church on all continents in parallel with the civil justice of different countries – currently defines sexual crimes committed by the clergy against minors under the simple title of non-observance of the sixth commandment of the Bible (“You shall not commit adultery”).

However, this very ecclesial formulation evoking the non-respect of the obligatory vow of celibacy was denounced as obsolete and obscure, in view of the avalanche of pedocriminality scandals unveiled in recent years within the Church, in the United States, in the United States, in the United States. Chile or even Germany.

The Vatican presented on Tuesday a fairly complete overhaul of one of its 1983 “canon law” books, the one on criminal sanctions. These changes will take effect in December.

In an introduction, Pope Francis explains that the revision aims to rebalance the relationship between justice and mercy “which has sometimes been misinterpreted” resulting in a climate of “laxity” within the Church concerning in particular cases of sexual abuse on minors.

The greater precision brought to the sexual crimes against minors emerges as one of the main innovations, even if they were already punished in canon law.

In a section entitled “offenses against human life, dignity and freedom”, Vatican legislation will henceforth punish “an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with a minor or a person habitually affected by an imperfect use of reason or with a person to whom the law recognizes similar protection ”.

Will also be punished any priest – but also from now on any religious or layman having a post in the Church – who leads a minor to “participate in pornographic exhibitions” or who keeps child pornographic images.

The penalties, which must be examined on a case-by-case basis, can go as far as exclusion from the Church.

The Church has certainly not abandoned its traditional secular formulation on the “sixth commandment” of the Bible, little in tune with the civil justice of the planet, but it therefore adds the mention of minors.

During a press conference Tuesday, Mgr Filippo Iannone, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, referred to the recent “very serious episodes of pedophilia” within the Church to evoke a choice “expressing the will of the legislator to reaffirm the gravity of this crime and the ‘pay attention to the victims’.

No additional

The statute of limitations for such sexual crimes remains unchanged at twenty years, which may disappoint the victims. Especially since the new Penal Code includes a slightly longer prescription for new financial crimes.

It is ecclesial justice which examines suspicions of sexual abuse in order to decide to defrock a priest after an internal investigation, or even to imprison him. This does not prevent trials in civil justice in the countries where the acts were committed.

Before an unprecedented summit of bishops from all continents convened by the Pope in February 2019 to fight against sexual assault, victims had demanded in particular a clearer definition of crimes against minors.

Without being a revolution, it is an additional step in the arsenal of the fight against child crime desired by Pope Francis.

In 2019, he lifted the papal secrecy on these crimes. This means that complaints, testimonies and documents from internal Church trials regarding sexual assault can be turned over to civil justice magistrates.

In the same year, the Argentine Pope changed canon law to make it mandatory to report any suspicion of sexual assault or harassment to the Church hierarchy.

The Church, on the other hand, does not oblige its members to report cases to the judicial authorities of the country to which they depend, except where required by local law.

The new Vatican legislation presented on Tuesday also incorporates new offenses such as the attempt to ordain women, an act which incurs the penalty of excommunication, we can read, as a call to order to the most progressive of the Church. who plead for this opening.

The pedophile scandals in the Catholic Church

United States

In February 2019, Pope Francis defrocked former American cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 88, accused of sexual assault almost half a century ago. It was the first time that a cardinal had been “reduced to a lay state” for such reasons.

In 2018, a Pennsylvania Attorney General’s investigation uncovered sexual abuse, covered by the Catholic Church in that state alone, perpetrated by more than 300 “predatory priests” against at least a thousand children. The scandal forced the former Archbishop of Pittsburgh, Donald Wuerl, to resign.

In the 2000s, according to a large survey by the Boston Globe, the hierarchy of this diocese, and in particular the former Archbishop Bernard Law, systematically covered sexual abuse committed by some 90 priests. Refugee in the Vatican after resigning from the archdiocese, Bernard Law died in 2017.

Between 1950 and 2016, the American Church received complaints from more than 18,500 victims of sexual abuse committed by more than 6,700 members of the clergy, according to


During his trip to Chile in January 2018, Pope Francis first defended the Chilean bishop Juan Barros, suspected of having killed the sex crimes of an old priest.

He then backtracked and invited some of the victims to Rome and summoned all the Chilean bishops. The latter presented their resignation en bloc and part of these resignations were accepted.

In October 2018, Chilean justice ordered the Church to pay compensation of 450 million pesos ($ 671,000) to three victims.


Cardinal George Pell was sentenced in 2019 to six years in prison for rape and sexual assault on two altar boys in 1996 and 1997.

His conviction, confirmed on appeal, was overturned by the High Court of Australia, which acquitted him in 2020 for the benefit of the doubt.

In May 2018, Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson was convicted of covering up assaults committed in the 1970s by a priest. His conviction was overturned on appeal in December 2018.


Since 2010, hundreds of cases of sexual abuse suffered by minors in religious institutions have been revealed, especially in the very upscale Canisius College in Berlin.

In 2017, an investigation report revealed that at least 547 children from the Regensburg Catholic choir were allegedly victims of abuse, including rape, between 1945 and the early 1990s.

In 2018, a survey by a consortium of researchers revealed that at least 3,677 children were victims of sexual violence between 1946 and 2014 committed by 1,670 religious. Most have never been punished.

In March 2021, an independent report commissioned by the German Church identified 314 minors who were victims of sexual violence by 202 members of the clergy or lay people between 1975 and 2018 in the diocese of Cologne.


In the 2000s, allegations of decades-long sexual abuse of 14,500 children challenged Church institutions. Several bishops and priests, accused of covering up these acts, were punished.

In 2018, the Pope notably met a victim of priest Tony Walsh, who sexually abused children for nearly two decades before being defrocked and imprisoned.


The powerful Polish Catholic Church has been reeling in recent years by a long series of accusations of sexual abuse that have resulted in Vatican sanctions or resignations.

She admitted in 2019 that nearly 400 clergymen had sexually abused children over the past three decades.


Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was sentenced at first instance, in 2019, to six months suspended prison sentence for non-denunciation of sexual assault on minors committed by the priest Bernard Preynat, on some 70 young scouts between 1986 and 1991. Justice released him on appeal in 2020 and then dismissed the civil parties’ cassation appeal in April 2021. The Pope nevertheless accepted his resignation.

Bernard Preynat for his part was sentenced in 2020 to five years of imprisonment.

In March 2021, the French Bishops’ Conference (CEF) decided to pay a “financial contribution” for victims of child crime, whose number is estimated at at least 10,000 since the 1950s, according to the Independent Commission on sexual abuse in the Church (Ciase).

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