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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Roman Catholic Church Investigation Report


C.2: The Church’s canonical framework

Canon law

3. The Catholic Church is governed by divine law and legislation made by the Pope.[1] Prior to 1917, the law of the Church was found in collections of decrees of Church Councils and the Popes.[2] In 1917, these decrees were consolidated into “a single authoritative code” – the 1917 Code of Canon Law.[3] In 1983, the Code was revised and replaced. The 1983 Code of Canon Law remains in force (subject to various amendments).

4. Canon 1395 of the 1983 Code contains the main canonical crime applicable to child sexual abuse allegations. It states:

A cleric who in another way has committed an offence against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years,[4] is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.[5]

5. Monsignor Gordon Read, an expert in canon law, explained that historically “any kind of sexual sin” was considered an offence against the sixth of the Ten Commandments (‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’).[6] Canon 1395 is therefore part of a group of offences “that relate specifically to the responsibilities/expectations of clergy including celibacy”.[7] Monsignor Read told us that another section of the Code “deals with offences against human life and freedom” which Monsignor Read considered to “be a much better place to locate this particular area of legislation not least because it applies not only to clergy but to anyone”.[8]

6. Describing child sexual abuse as the canonical crime of ‘adultery’ is wrong and minimises the criminal nature of abuse inflicted on child victims. A canonical crime relating to child sexual abuse should be clearly identified as a crime against the child.

Papal laws

7. The Pope can make laws in his own right. He also approves legislative changes presented to him by the various departments and bodies of the Holy See.

8. Legislation made by the Pope is applicable to the Church worldwide (universal law). One of the ways the Pope can legislate is by issuing a Motu Proprio. A Motu Proprio is a personal decree (or law) issued by the Pope which amends or replaces any code of canon law (or other provision) which is contrary to the decree. Some examples relevant to this Investigation include:

  • In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a Motu Proprio which included procedural rules for dealing with cases of alleged child sexual abuse.[9]
  • In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI issued a Motu Proprio amending Canon 1395 to read “a person below the age of eighteen years”.[10]
  • In 2016, Pope Francis issued a Motu Proprio stating that the negligence of a bishop in handling child sexual abuse allegations might satisfy the test for removing the negligent bishop from office.[11]

Motu Proprio – Vos estis lux mundi

9. On 7 May 2019, Pope Francis issued the Motu Proprio ‘Vos estis lux mundi’ (‘You are the light of the world’).[12] At the outset of the Motu Proprio, he wrote:

The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful. In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission … Even if so much has already been accomplished we must continue to learn from the bitter lessons of the past, looking with hope towards the future.[13]

10. The Motu Proprio prescribes:

  • clerics and religious must report sexual abuse, and any cover-up, to the appropriate Church authorities, including the relevant bishop or religious institute leader (save where to do so would be a breach of the sacramental seal);
  • cooperation with state authorities, including adherence to any national reporting obligations;
  • the procedure for handling allegations made against a bishop or leader of a religious institute;[14] and
  • a commitment by the Church to ensure that victims and complainants and their families are to be “treated with dignity and respect”, including being “listened to and supported” and offered spiritual and medical assistance as required by the specific case.[15]

11. The Motu Proprio was described by the Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales as the Catholic Church taking “a further and incisive step in the prevention and fight against abuse, putting the emphasis on concrete actions”.[16]


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