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Pope Francis updates canon law to address paedophilia by priests

Pope Francis updated the Catholic Church’s criminal code Tuesday, adding directives on punishing sexual abuse crimes of minors by priests that have long been sought by activists against paedophilia.

Revision of the penal sanctions within the Code of Canon Law followed a lengthy process involving input from canonist and criminal law experts and came after repeated complaints by victims of sexual abuse and others that the code’s previous wording was outdated and intransparent.

The purpose of the revision, wrote Francis in introducing the changes, is “restoration of justice, the reform of the offender, and the repair of scandal.”

Since becoming pope in 2013, the Argentine pontiff has striven to tackle the decades-long sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests around the globe, although many activists against paedophilia insist much more needs to be done.

He convened an unprecedented summit on clerical sex abuse in 2019 while lifting secrecy rules that hindered investigations of abusing priests, among other measures.

The new code falls short of explicitly spelling out sexual offences against minors yet refers to offences against the sixth commandment, which prohibits adultery.

A priest is to be stripped of his office and punished “with other just penalties” if he commits such offences with a minor, the new code says.

Similarly, a priest who grooms or induces a minor “to expose himself or herself pornographically or to take part in pornographic exhibitions” will be similarly punished.

Need for justice

One aim of the revision, wrote Francis, was to reduce the number of penalties left to the discretion of judges, especially in the most serious cases.

“The new text introduces various modifications to the law in force and sanctions some new criminal offences, which respond to the increasingly widespread need in the various communities to see justice and order reestablished that the crime has shattered,” he wrote.

Other technical improvements related to “the right of defence, the statute of limitations for criminal action, a more precise determination of penalties,” added Francis.

The changes will take effect in December.

Despite recent measures to root out abuse by priests and increase transparency, some victims say the Vatican still has not gone far enough to protect children even in the West, where intense media coverage of paedophile priests has led to greater scrutiny of church practices.

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