The secretary of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, Bishop Stephen Lowe of Hamilton, focused on tougher penalties for sexual abuse in welcoming revisions to the Church’s Code of Canon Law.
Pope Francis published an extensive revision of Book Six of the Code, which deals with penal sanctions for ecclesiastical crimes. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, had ordered the revision in 2007.
In an Apostolic Constitution explaining the need for the new Code, Pope Francis said that “it required modification in such a way as to allow Pastors to employ it as a more salvific and corrective tool, to be applied promptly and with pastoral charity to avoid more serious evils and soothe the wounds caused by human nature.”
Among the major changes, the upgraded code makes sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons, a crime committed against the dignity of the person. It therefore includes abuse not only by clerics, but also by non-cleric religious men and women, and laypeople who occupy certain roles in the church. It also makes punishable abuse of adults when committed with violence or abuse of authority.
The revisions to the Code also limit the discretion of Bishops in dealing with cases of abuse. “This new chapter of Canon Law sets out how the Church must deal with abusers in addition to the criminal law sanctions,” said Bishop Lowe. “It removes a bishop’s former discretion to use Canon Law to punish someone who has committed abuse.”
He added, “This affirming and widening by Pope Francis of the Canon Law provisions against abuse is welcome and timely, especially as it comes during the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care, which the Catholic Church strongly supports.”
The Royal Commission was established in 2018 to investigate “what happened to children, young people and vulnerable adults while in the care of the State or faith-based institutions, mainly between the years 1950-1999.”
The Church in New Zealand has acknowledged “with deep sadness and regret that a number of clergy and religious have sexually abused children, adolescents and adults who have been in their pastoral care,” and offered a “sincere apology” to victims.
In his comments on the revisions to canon law, Bishop Lowe said, “The Catholic Church accepts the responsibility to act when abuse occurs in the Church. We will act by listening, learning and supporting those affected by abuse. We will act swiftly on complaints and follow them through. We will hold those to account who have been proven responsible for abuse. This upgrading of Canon Law affirms that.”