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Pope Expands Sex Abuse Law, Reaffirms Adults Can Be Victims

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Saturday updated a 2019 church law aimed at holding Catholic hierarchs accountable for covering up cases of sex abuse, expanding the norms to cover lay Catholic leaders and reaffirming that vulnerable adults can also be victims of abuse when they are unable to consent.

Francis reaffirmed and made permanent the temporary provisions of the 2019 law that were passed in a moment of crisis for the Vatican and Catholic hierarchy. That law had been praised at the time for laying out precise mechanisms to investigate complicit bishops and religious superiors, but its implementation has been uneven and the Vatican has been criticized by abuse survivors for continued lack of transparency about the cases.

The new norms conform to other changes in the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse that have been issued since then. Most significantly, they are expanded to cover leaders of Vatican-approved associations headed by lay leaders, not just clerics. That is a response to the many cases that have come to light in recent years of lay leaders abusing their authority to sexually exploit people under their spiritual care or authority.

The new norms also reaffirmed that even adults can be victims of predatory priests, such as nuns or seminarians who are dependent on their bishops or superiors. Church law previously considered that only adults who “habitually” lacked the use of reason could be considered victims alongside minors.

The new law makes clear that adults can be rendered vulnerable to abuse even occasionally, as situations present themselves. That the definition remained in the text is significant given resistance in the Vatican to expanding its abuse norms to cover adults.

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It states that a vulnerable person is “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence.”

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