Keoghs Insight


Lauranne Nolan

Changes to Canon law


On Tuesday 1 June 2021, Pope Francis announced the most extensive revisions to the Code of Canon Law since 1983. Canon law, often referred to as Vatican law, is the legal framework for the Catholic Church. The revisions, which have been in the works since 2009, will come into force on 8 December 2021.

The changes are considered to be part of Pope Francis’ efforts to clean up the church’s reputation following the scandal surrounding child abuse revelations and the suggestion of a cover up. In the lead-up to these changes he organised a global church summit on abuse in February 2019 as well as introducing laws requiring priests and nuns to report allegations of abuse to church authorities as well as punishments for bishops and other superiors for failing to address accusations and to properly investigate. The revisions are a further important step forward for the church and, whilst they have been welcomed, they have been met with a sceptical view that they are only as good as their enforcement.

The new rules make sexual abuse, grooming minors or vulnerable adults for sex, possessing child pornography and covering up abuse a criminal offence under Vatican law. The sexual abuse of minors, which was previously under the section “crimes against special obligations” has now been placed under a new section titled “Offences against human life, dignity and liberty”. The code also goes one step further and states that lay persons in positions of responsibility in the church and found guilty of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults can be punished by the church as well as civil authorities.

The section has also been expanded to acknowledge that adults can also be victimised by priests who abuse their offices. The previous position was that the church viewed sexual relationships with clerics and consenting adults as sinful, but not a crime. The clerics involved were often forced to attend a period of counselling, but it was rarely considered to be serious enough for removal from the priesthood. Laicisation, often referred to as ‘defrocking’ is the return of a priest to a lay member; however, the process can take a considerable amount of time to complete. It is thought that the new changes will apply to any adult in the church who can demonstrate that a cleric or religious leader committed sexual abuse “with violence or the abuse of authority”.

One aim of the changes, which took 11 years to develop, was to reduce the number of cases in which the penalty was left to the discretion of the church authorities and, therefore, provide more consistency across the church. However, one of the issues is that the new changes do not spell out sexual offences against minors, but instead refer to them as being offences against the sixth commandment, which prohibits adultery. Campaigners have long demanded that the church defines the abuse as a crime against children instead of a violation of priestly celibacy which the changes do not address, and some view it as a way of minimising the criminal nature of abuse on child victims.

Other new entries in the code include economic crimes, such as embezzlement of church funds or property, and preventing the ordination of women which states that the person attempting to confer the sacred order on a woman as well as the women who attempts to receive it will be automatically excommunicated.

Whilst the changes are an important step forward and an acknowledgment by Pope Francis that the church must do better than it has done in the past, it will take some time to truly see the effect once they come into force in December this year.

For more information, please contact Lauranne Nolan, Solicitor.