Prelates who fail to apply penalties seem to be 'consenting to the evil committed', says cardinal

The Vatican is revising the Code of Canon Law to underline the need for bishops to enforce penalties against clergy guilty of abuse.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano: “We want to make this delicate material more accessible, more understandable and easier for bishops to apply.”

In the interview, the cardinal said his office has been working since 2008 to revise “Book VI: Sanctions in the Church”, a section of the Code of Canon Law.

The penalties and punishments offered by Church law should be applied, he said.

“In the face of a negative action, which harms the good of a person and therefore the good of the Church, penal law expects a reaction, that is, the pastor inflicting a canonical penalty,” the cardinal said.

If a bishop does not react by imposing a punishment on a priest guilty of the crime of sexual abuse, he said, “in some way that would be, or would seem to be, consenting to the evil committed. A negative act necessarily must be condemned. It requires a reaction.”

At the same time, he said, the bishop must recognise that the infliction of a penalty is ultimately for the good of the abuser as well. Penalties in canon law are designed to “encourage the conversion of those who commit crimes”.

In an interview with Catholic News Service last year, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, council secretary, also spoke of the work of revising that section of canon law.

Bishop Arrieta had said the current Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, was written with such an emphasis on the role of the individual bishop in his local diocese that each bishop bore the full weight of deciding when and how to intervene and what sort of sanction or punishment to impose on the guilty.

The law ended up being too vague, and Church sanctions were being applied so haphazardly, that the church appeared to be divided, he said.

The two chief concerns in the revised section, as in all Church law, Bishop Arrieta said, are “to safeguard the truth and protect the dignity of persons”.

At the same time, the rules are more stringent – “if someone does this, he must be punished,” the bishop said. While it withdraws the discretionary power of the bishop in certain cases, he said, “it is for the good of the bishop”.