There’s a new sheriff in the Vatican City State.
With the swiftness and surety rarely seen in the Eternal City, Pope Francis sent a loud and clear message to laity and clergy working in the Vatican that child abuse and sexual crimes will be dealt with severely under this pontificate. With the stroke of a pen, Francis overhauled laws that had been in the Vatican Penal Code for nearly 125 years. The new law broadens the definition of crimes against children to include, child prostitution, grooming of children, sexual violence, sex acts with children and the possession and production of child pornography.
The laws are broadened to address the reality of Internet crimes against children. In addition, the Pope approved increasing the sentences to 5-10 years with a maximum of 12 years for aggravating circumstances. Importantly, a minor is defined as anyone under the age of 18, unlike many countries which define the age of majority much younger, making more minors vulnerable to sexual exploitation without the protection of the laws. Francis also authorized laws which permit Vatican prosecutors to pursue a case even if the victim chooses not to make a complaint. The legislation covers clergy and lay people who live and work in Vatican City and is different from the canon law which addresses the universal Catholic Church.
Within a mere four months of his elevation to Pontiff, Francis is signaling that the dignity and protection of children is a priority. Interestingly, there was no urgency or public outcry for him to change these laws. Yet, he knows that he has the attention of the Church and the world. Pope Francis is sending a strong message that abuse of children will not be tolerated and punishment will be severe in Vatican City. Early in his pontificate, he signaled his reverence for children as he often stops to greet disabled children at his weekly audience. Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George advises the faithful to closely watch the gestures of this Pope because they reveal his priorities and concerns. Without a doubt, the gestures of Francis signify the protection of a father for his flock, especially the most vulnerable children.
This is a savvy and fearless man who knows that he was chosen to clean up the corruption in the Vatican. He is wasting no time as he makes decisions with little fanfare but with the steady confidence that the Vatican must reflect goodness, truth, and justice.
As Cardinal Bergoglio, he lived simply among the people during his entire priestly ministry in Argentina. He understands first hand the tragic consequences of child abuse. His legislative amendments to the criminal law demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the rampant growth of child exploitation and the need for severe punishment for predators.
While the naysayers may dismiss the Pope’s legislative improvements, it is critical to place them in the context of the global community where few countries have tough laws on child pornography. According to a 2013 research study by the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 53 countries have no child pornography laws at all. Incredibly, 127 countries do not have sufficient laws to impact the global exploitation of children through trading, possession, and manufacturing of child pornography. Clearly, his actions are very significant and demonstrate his leadership in the world community.
In his 2012 best selling book on the waning of Christianity, Bad Religion, Ross Douthat described with uncanny prescience the kind of man needed to revive the faith:
“We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic, or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn. Only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.”
The waiting is over. Francis has arrived.