Is the Catholic Church Beginning to Address Abuse of Adults?

As we’ve noted on this blog many times, the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is not limited to the abuse of children. Adults can be victimized as well, a reality that the Catholic community has been slow to recognize. 

The case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick illustrates this problem: The Vatican’s own investigation showed that Church officials knew about McCarrick’s abuse of young adult seminarians but largely ignored it for decades; they failed to take definitive action against McCarrick until they received a formal report in 2017 that he had abused a minor. 

But recent developments suggest that the abuse of adults is receiving more attention within the Church. 

Changes to Canon Law

In June 2021, Pope Francis released revisions to Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, which spells out the Church’s penal sanctions. The revisions specifically address cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors and adults. The revision process began in 2007, under Pope Benedict XVI, and the revised canons took effect on December 8.

The code now recognizes that adults can be harmed by priests who abuse their authority, and states that lay people in leadership positions in the Church—such as parish staff members or catechists—can be punished under canon law for abusing minors or adults. 

Also, Book VI now says that priests can be prosecuted for grooming minors or vulnerable adults to “induce” them to take part in pornography. This is the first time that church law has addressed grooming (the techniques used by sexual predators to prepare potential victims for abuse), although it’s worth noting that the revision does not consider grooming that could lead to other forms of sexual abuse beyond pornography.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered for its General Assembly in Baltimore in November, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed bishops in a video presentation about these revisions to canon law, offering additional insights into the changes. For example, he noted that local bishops would be responsible for prosecuting cases of sexual abuse of vulnerable adults by priests or deacons in their dioceses. 

There has been much debate in the Church around the term “vulnerable adult.” Who is considered vulnerable? In some instances Church law uses the term narrowly, applying it only to people with developmental disabilities, but many argue that the power imbalance between priests and parishioners, for example, or between seminary leaders and seminarians, creates scenarios in which adults are vulnerable to abuse.

Review of the Dallas Charter

During the November USCCB meeting, bishops voted to review the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, also known as the Dallas Charter, this summer or fall, three years earlier than planned. Originally adopted in 2002, the charter was designed to protect minors from sexual abuse.

Bishop James Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, chairman of the Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, told the bishops that the review would likely “take into consideration the learnings of the McCarrick Report” and “other trends that present challenges for maintaining a safe environment.”  

During the meeting, Mark O’Connell, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston and a member of the Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, spoke in favor of a quicker review of the charter, saying that a 2025 review is “absolutely too long to wait.” He also urged the committee to discuss the topic of vulnerable adults when it meets later this year. Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston and Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas echoed O’Connell in calling for a discussion about the protection of vulnerable adults. 

We at Awake Milwaukee hope that the USCCB will indeed address the abuse of adults in their discussions. We’re following this issue closely. Watch the blog for news as it unfolds.  

What do survivors think about these developments? Read more in our follow-up post:
Survivors Offer Their Take on Church Changes Regarding Abuse of Adults.



4 thoughts on “Is the Catholic Church Beginning to Address Abuse of Adults?

  1. This is my area of research and I will be happy to present my findings or discuss them in any way. I am not overly enthusiastic about the so-called changes to Canon Law especially when one considers the changes which appear to make it easier for offending clergy to ‘get off’ so to speak. The recent qualifications by Pope Francis of ‘sins f the flesh’ being in the lesser sin category, shows a great lack of appreciation for what adult survivors of clergy sexual misconduct suffer as a result of such minor sins. Such an approach is actually somewhat clericalist as it may seem like a lesser sin on the side of the cleric on their journey to celibacy, but it is not so if one considers the impacts that lesser sin has on the other person. Furthermore, such a statement minimises the reality that so many clergy have given up on their ‘noble journey’ of chastity/celibacy no longer considering chastity to be that necessary to be a celibate. There are so many things to consider in this issue – another being how clergy sexual activity increases the culture of secrecy when clergy know of each others ‘lesser sins of the flesh’, fine to the point that even child sexual abuse gets covered up because to expose it may threaten to expose one’s own secret sexual activity. So, no, I don’t believe there is much progress, yet. Stephen de Weger (PhD)

    1. Stephen, thanks for sharing your insights here. I’ll be in touch to discuss these ideas with you further. Happy New Year!

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