New Vatican law criminalizes abuse of adults by priests and laypeople

Many activists say much more needs to be done to address sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis has amended church law to criminalize the sexual abuse of adults by priests and to allow the punishment of laypeople who hold positions in the church for similar crimes.

After 14 years of study, the Vatican on Tuesday released the new provisions in the revised criminal law section of its Code of Canon Law.

The move comes after repeated complaints by victims of sexual abuse and activists against pedophilia who say the code's previous wording was outdated and opaque.

The new law, which goes into effect on December 8, recognizes that adults, too, can be the victims of abuse at the hands of priests.

The Vatican gradually began issuing new laws since a number of sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church — mostly involving children — came to light due to intensified media coverage worldwide.

What does the new law entail?

The new law removes some of the discretion that had systematically allowed some bishops and church members to ignore or cover up various forms of abuse, making clearer they can be held responsible for negligence in failing to properly investigate and sanction priests who abuse their power.

According to the new law, priests who engage in sexual acts with anyone, not just a minor, can be defrocked if they used "force, threats or abuse of his authority."

But the law doesn't define which adults are covered, saying only "one to whom the law recognizes equal protection."

Sexual abuse now counts as a crime "against life, dignity and freedom of the human person," instead of being listed under violations of celibacy.

Those who fail to carry out sentences or punitive decrees, or fail to pass on notices as required, will now be punished, according to the amendment.

What other changes did the Vatican create?

The Vatican also criminalized the "grooming" of minors or vulnerable adults by priests to compel them to engage in pornography.

Sexual predators within the Catholic Church have been known to use grooming methods to build relationships with their victims to then sexually exploit them.

Now, for the first time, church law has officially recognized the method as criminal.

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