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Pope Francis ends automatic dismissal of religious-order priests for abuse (updated)

April 27, 2022

Less than a year after he strengthened the Code of Canon Law’s section on crimes, Pope Francis has issued an apostolic letter motu proprio (on his own initiative) that alters the wording of one of the canons.

As a result of the change, members of religious institutes who sexually abuse minors and other vulnerable persons, or who commit canonical offenses related to child pornography, will no longer be automatically dismissed from their religious institutes.

In addition, members of religious institutes who “force someone to perform or submit to sexual acts” will no longer be automatically dismissed from their religious institutes.

Canon 695 §1 previously stated (link 1, link 2):

A member must be dismissed for the delicts mentioned in cann. 1397, 1398, and 1395, unless in the delicts mentioned in can. 1395, §2, the superior decides that dismissal is not completely necessary and that correction of the member, restitution of justice, and reparation of scandal can be resolved sufficiently in another way.

As a result of the Pope’s apostolic letter Recognitum Librum VI (“Called to Mind Again, Book VI”), dated April 26 and made public the same day, Canon 695 §1 now states (substantive changes in bold):

Can. 695 §1. A member must be dismissed for the delicts mentioned in cann. 1395, 1397, and 1398, unless in the delicts mentioned in can. 1395, §2-3 and 1398, §1, the major superior decides that dismissal is not completely necessary and that correction of the member, restitution of justice, and reparation of scandal can be resolved sufficiently in another way.

The canonical offenses that no longer entail automatic dismissal from religious institutes are the offenses cited in Canon 1395 §3 and Canon 1398 §1.

Canon 1395 §3 refers to “a cleric who by force, threats or abuse of his authority commits an offence against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue or forces someone to perform or submit to sexual acts.”

Canon 1398 §1, in its first subsection, refers to a cleric who “commits an offence against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with a minor or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason or with one to whom the law recognizes equal protection.”

In its second and third subsections, Canon 1398 §1 refers to a cleric who

grooms or induces a minor or a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason or one to whom the law recognizes equal protection to expose himself or herself pornographically or to take part in pornographic exhibitions, whether real or simulated;

immorally acquires, retains, exhibits or distributes, in whatever manner and by whatever technology, pornographic images of minors or of persons who habitually have an imperfect use of reason.

In ending the automatic dismissal from religious institutes of members who have been judged guilty (under the process described in Canon 695 §2) of committing rape, sexually abusing minors and other vulnerable persons, or engaging in child pornography, Pope Francis left unchanged the provisions of the Code that address the separate question of whether religious-order clerics who have been found guilty of these offenses should be dismissed from the clerical state.

Under the Code, diocesan clerics who have been found guilty of committing these canonical offenses, as well as religious-order clerics who have been found guilty of these offenses, are “to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.”


Updated April 28

In an Italian-language interview with Vatican News, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa de Chinchetru, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, offered an explanation of the Pope’s changes to Canon 695 §1:

Canon 695—which speaks of the possibility of a religious being dismissed from his institute, according to the crimes committed—referred, in turn, explains Monsignor Arrieta, to other canons of the Sixth Book which, however, with the [2021] reform “have been moved and have changed numbering.” Therefore, “it was also necessary to modify this canon” in order for the various correspondences to be exact.

In other words, when Pope Francis approved the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law (Canons 1311-1399) in 2021, he did not change Canon 695, which referred to Canon 1395 §2. Therefore—according to Bishop Arrieta—it was “necessary” to change Canon 695.

Pope Francis made a similar statement in the opening paragraph of his new apostolic letter:

Recognitum Librum VI Codicis Iuris Canonici, De sanctionibus poenalibus in Ecclesia, Constitutione Apostolica Pascite gregem Dei, diei 1 m. Iunii a. 2021 promulgavimus. Hoc in libro quorundam delictorum ratio immutata est, nova aliqua delicta introducta sunt atque insuper etiam ordo numericus canonum modificatus est. Ut haec vero omnia concordent cum canonibus aliorum Librorum Codicis, accommodatio requiritur.

On June 1, 2021, by the Apostolic Constitution Pascite Gregem Dei, We promulgated Book VI—called to mind again (recognitum)—of the Code of Canon Law on Penal Sanctions in the Church. In this Book, the numbering of certain delicts (offenses) has been changed, some new delicts have been introduced, and furthermore, even the numerical order of the canons has been modified. In order that all these things may be consistent with the canons of the other Books, an adjustment is required.

Ever since the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1983, members of religious institutes who have been found guilty of the offenses listed in Canons 1395, 1397, and 1398 have been subject to automatic dismissal from their religious institute—unless they have been found guilty of the offenses mentioned in Canon 1395 §2. In that case, the religious superior is permitted to dismiss the member, but is also permitted to decide “that dismissal is not completely necessary and that correction of the member, restitution of justice, and reparation of scandal can be resolved sufficiently in another way.”

Between 1983 and 2021, Canon 1395 §2 stated:

A cleric who has offended in other ways against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the crime was committed by force, or by threats, or in public, or with a minor under the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.

Since 2021, Canon 1395 §2 has stated:

A cleric who has offended in other ways against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the offence was committed in public, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.

Between 1983 and 2021, then, Canon 1395 §2’s exception to automatic dismissal from religious institutes referred to rape, public sexual acts, and the sexual abuse of minors. In those cases, religious superiors were permitted to dismiss those found guilty of these offenses, but were also permitted to address those offenses in other ways.

Beginning in 2021, however, Canon 1395 §2’s exception to automatic dismissal from religious institutes referred only to public sexual acts. Thus, when the new Book VI entered into force on December 8, 2021, members of religious institutes who were found guilty of committing rape or of sexually abusing minors were newly subject to automatic dismissal.

In issuing his apostolic letter Recognitum Librum VI on his own initiative (motu proprio) on April 26, Pope Francis manifested his desire that this new situation of automatic dismissal for rape, and that this new situation of automatic dismissal for the sexual abuse of minors, should cease.

By adding to Canon 695 §1 an exception for the offenses mentioned in Canon 1395 §3, Pope Francis has again permitted religious superiors—specifically, major superiors—to address the canonical offense of rape in a manner that does not entail dismissal from the religious institute.

And by adding to Canon 695 §1 an exception for the offenses mentioned in Canon 1398 §1, Pope Francis has again permitted religious superiors—specifically, major superiors—to address the canonical offense of the sexual abuse of minors in a manner that does not entail dismissal from the religious institute.

In doing so, Pope Francis has also now permitted major superiors to address the offenses of sexual abuse of vulnerable adults and child pornography in a manner that does not entail dismissal from the religious institute.

 


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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: frjt - Apr. 28, 2022 6:32 AM ET USA

    A papacy filled with 'you musts' followed by 'oh, wait' Dominus flevit

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 28, 2022 3:02 AM ET USA

    The cynic in me wonders, Could it be that the tougher new rules affected too many Jesuits?

  • Posted by: romy1277408 - Apr. 27, 2022 9:51 PM ET USA

    This move by the Pope is a good one. It gives the priest access to due process either within the order or in the Roman Rota, both of which a priest should have access.

  • Posted by: Archpriest - Apr. 27, 2022 8:21 PM ET USA

    Are we to then understand that religious order clerics in religious orders can be protected by their superiors, however, secular clerics have no such protections or recourse?

  • Posted by: JIMandEM - Apr. 27, 2022 7:51 PM ET USA

    Wow! How ambiguous. That should do it.