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Pope Francis closes clerical sex abuse loophole

Clerics who sexually abuse minors can be canonically prosecuted even when they say they were not aware that a person with whom they had sexual contact was a minor, according to changes to canon law announced by the Vatican on Tuesday.

The reform of the law, authorized by Pope Francis, follows cases in which clerics claimed they did not know the age of a minor with whom they had sexual contact, or believed them to be more than 18 years old.

Apostolic Tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pillar file photo.

The Holy See announced Dec. 7 reforms to Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, the special law first issued by Pope St. John Paul II in 2001 and revised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. SST defines the Church’s graviora delicta, or major crimes against the faith and sacraments, for which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has exclusive authority for prosecution and judgement.

The Code of Canon Law recognizes as a general legal principle that ignorance, inadvertence, or error can impede canonical prosecution.

According to canon 1321, “A person who deliberately violated a law or precept is bound by the penalty prescribed in that law or precept. If, however, the violation was due to the omission of due diligence, the person is not punished unless the law or precept provides otherwise.”

The changes announced Tuesday amount to an explicitly stated exception to that norm.

In cases of sexual abuse of minors, “ignorance or error on the part of the cleric about the age of a minor does not diminish the gravity of the circumstances, or extinguish the crime,” the norms issued Tuesday state.

Several cases in recent years have seen clerics argue that they were unaware of the actual age of the person with whom they were having sexual contact.

In 2019, South Carolina priest Fr. Raymond Flores was arrested after exchanging sexually explicit photos with a minor on the location based hookup app Grindr. But because the priest believed the minor was actually 18, Flores was not charged with a civil crime. The Diocese of Charleston has said the priest has not been returned to ministry, and is reportedly undergoing a canonical investigation.

Fr. Jeffrey Paulish of the Diocese of Scranton was arrested in 2013 when he was caught engaged in sexual contact with a 15 year-old boy. Paulish told police he had arranged to meet him via the “casual encounters” section of the website Craigslist but had asked the boy three times to confirm he was over 18. Although Paulish was removed from ministry, he was not laicized.

Because canon law previously required both the commission of the offense and the intention to commit the offense as constituent elements of a conviction, priests found to have inadvertently engaged in sexual activity with minors could be left in a kind of canonical limbo: deemed forever unsuitable for ministry, but not returned to the lay state.

Experts have warned that the rise of social media, so-called hookup apps, and other online meeting platforms has increased the risk of child sexual abuse and trafficking, including situations in which an adult may not realize that he has been in contact with a minor.

Child protection advocates warn that because some apps prioritize anonymity and confidentiality without doing enough to screen users for age, they have become a frequent point of contact between minors and adults.

Many companies which own dating and hookup apps “are not doing anything for age verification,” Dani Pinter, senior legal counsel at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, told The Pillar earlier this year.

While technology exists to verify the ages of app users easily, most hookup apps “don't ask for ID for any of the dating apps. I mean, you just check a box or enter a birth date, which you can fake. They don't check,” Pinter said.

Failure to ensure that children are prohibited from hookup apps and other online sites used by adults leads to the exploitation, extortion, and trafficking of minors, she added.

Researchers have found that a surprisingly high number of minors say they use online means to seek out sexual encounters.

Jack Turban, a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, co-published a paper this year which estimated that about 25% of gay and bisexual adolescent males use location based hookup apps, and found that they presented “an easy place” for adult-adolescent sexual encounters.

In a 2018 Northwestern University study of 14 to 17 year old males who identify as gay or bisexual, more than half of participants said they used hookup apps supposedly restricted to people aged 18 and over for the purposes of meeting partners. Nearly 70% of adolescent participants who said they used such apps did so in order to “meet men in person for sex,” the study concluded. More than a quarter of the study’s adolescent participants said they had had sex with a partner met through an app.

The canonical changes announced Dec. 7 address the actual commission of sexual abuse even without the intention to abuse a minor qua minor. They did not address instances in which clerics have deliberately attempted to engage in sexual activity with minors but not actually done so.

Several recent cases have involved clergy soliciting sexual contact or exchanging sexually explicit material with people they believed to be minors but were not.

Fr. Gregory Loughney was removed from ministry last month after confessing to arresting officers that he had traveled to meet two minors for the purposes of sex. Loughney thought he had been corresponding with a 15 year old boy named “Cyrus” on the Tinder dating app; in fact he had been messaging with an online vigilante group which poses as minors online to ensnare sexual predators.

In January, Deacon Rogelio Vega of the Diocese of Brooklyn was arrested after sending and soliciting sexually explicit photographs from an undercover police officer posing as a minor on the hookup app Grindr.

The changes to SST were authorized on October 11, but announced Dec. 7.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis issued a new version of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which functions as the universal penal code of the Church. The new Book VI comes into force on Dec. 8.

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