VATICAN CITY — On Tuesday, Pope Francis announced the most comprehensive change of Revises Church Law in four decades, urging bishops to prosecute clergy who abuse kids and vulnerable people, commit fraud, or seek to ordain women.
The reform, which began in 2009, covers all of section six of the Church’s Law of Canon Law, a seven-book code with over 1,750 articles.
The updated part, which includes roughly 90 articles on crime and punishment, contains many of Francis’ and Benedict XVI’s previous modifications to Church law.
In an attempt to limit bishops’ flexibility, it provides additional categories and sharper, more explicit terminology.
The pope reminded bishops in a separate document that they were accountable for obeying the text of the law.
According to Francis, one goal of the amendments is to “limit the number of circumstances when the application of a punishment is left to the discretion of authorities.”
Archbishop Filippo Iannone, the head of the Vatican department in charge of the initiative, claimed there had been “an extraordinary slackness in the application of criminal law,” with some bishops putting charity above justice at times.
Sexual abuse of children was moved from the ambiguous “Crimes Against Special Obligations” section to a new area called “Offenses Against Human Life, Dignity, and Liberty.”
Clerics who use “threats or misuse of his position” to coerce someone to have sexual intercourse may face defrocking.
Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was found to have misused his position by forcing seminarians to sleep with him, according to an internal study released last year. He was defrocked in 2019 after being accused of sexually abusing adolescents and adults.
The new rule states that lay individuals in positions of responsibility in the Church who are found guilty of sexual abuse of children or vulnerable adults can be punished both by the Church and by civil authorities.
The amended law expressly states that anybody who attempts to bestow ordination on a woman, as well as the woman herself, will be automatically excommunicated, and the cleric will be defrocked.
While the viewpoint was not surprising, it was “a bitter reminder of the Vatican’s patriarchal apparatus and its far-reaching effort to subjugate women,” according to Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.
Other new articles in the law include numerous economic crimes, such as misappropriation of Church finances or property or significant carelessness in their management, reflecting a succession of financial scandals that have plagued the Church in recent decades.