Nicholas P. Cafardi, a prominent canon lawyer in the United States, said the revisions to the code made it more “conforming to today’s expectations of professionals.” The priest and parishioner dynamic “certainly is a power relationship,” he said.
The updated norms met with approval from some of the Vatican’s most consistent critics.
“This is an important step forward in acknowledging the true scope of abuse within the Catholic Church,” the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement. But, the group added, “The changes announced by the Vatican are only as good as their enforcement.”
The new laws do not take effect until Dec. 8.
Church law previously considered sexual relationships between clerics and consenting adults as sinful, but not a crime (though rape and assault were already considered crimes). Often, offending clerics were forced to go to counseling, but in practice, it was rarely seen as an offense grave enough to be removed from the priesthood. Defrocking a priest is among the most severe punishments in canon law.
In recent years, Pope Francis seems to have made strides to overcome what many saw as a dangerous blind spot when it comes to the plague of abuse. He has cracked down on the sexual abuse of minors by passing church laws to punish bishops and religious superiors for negligence and failing to protect their flocks from predators.
He convened a major global church summit on abuse in 2019, and subsequently introduced laws requiring priests and nuns to report abuse accusations to church authorities.
Critics have called on the Vatican to require reporting to civil authorities, but the church has resisted, saying that it is a global institution, and in many countries such reporting would expose accused clergy to great harm.
The Rev. Hans Zollner, one of the leading church authorities on sexual abuse, said that the inclusion of adults in the new laws “is in line with the development over the last four years” of the #MeToo movement and the attention given to the abuse of adult seminarians.