Sauvé Report: Towards a Redefinition of Sexual Assault in Church Law?

Should the Catholic Church change the way it defines sexual assault in its internal law? The question, apparently technical, is nonetheless of major importance. Enough in any case to be the subject, at the beginning of October, of a recommendation in the report of the Independent Commission against sexual abuse in the Church (Ciase).

Because one of the principles structuring the catechism of the Catholic Church is to make the obligations of the life of Catholics flow according to the Ten Commandments. And it is by taking up this distinction that the Code of Canon Law, which governs the internal law of the Church, punishes sexual crimes committed by clerics as attacks on the sixth commandment of the Bible (“You will not commit adultery”).

But this category of offenses arising from the Sixth Commandment is too broad, consider the members of the Ciase in particular. Because if these attacks “Contra sextum” (the sixth commandment) all have the characteristic of being considered a “sin against chastity”, they are extremely diverse, ranging from masturbation to rape, including pornography and adultery.

“To consider rape as a sin against chastity leads to making the aggressor himself the victim. It is not possible ! And we cannot say that masturbating or raping is the same, just because, in both cases, we lose the state of grace ”, had told the Commission the Dominican Gilles Berceville, who feared that the connection of sexual assault could lead to “caricatures”.

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“By qualifying them as sins against chastity, canon law, in addition to very imperfectly defining the repressed acts, completely conceals their seriousness, as well as the suffering of the victims”, thus deduces the Ciase in its report. Which claims that “sexual violence committed against minors and vulnerable people” should no longer be identified as an attack on the sixth commandment, but on the fifth: “You shall not kill”. One way of recognizing that sexual assault causes the victims to die of a part of themselves.

“It would not be a huge change and very difficult to make”

Indeed, the recommendation in the report is not entirely new. In March 2021, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, expressed concern, in a letter sent to the Vatican, about the current form of Church law in matters of child crime. . This frame “Obsolete” “is no longer adequate to meet the requirements of a contemporary canonical approach to sexual offenses against minors and their legal equivalent”, he pleaded.

“On paper, it wouldn’t be a huge change and it’s not very difficult to do”, abounds in Rome, an influential canonist. He sees an opportunity to recognize “The impact of these crimes on the victims”. “This would correspond to taking into account the wound left by these acts in a person’s relational capacities, continues the same source. By referring to the fifth commandment, one recognizes that one is killing the possibility of relationship. “


But this approach contrasts with other reservations, expressed by other canonists working in the Vatican, and questioned by The cross. “I’m not sure we need to change this point, said one of them. The attachment to the sixth commandment reminds us that this fault has a physical and carnal impact. If we were to switch to the fifth, with a reference to death, some might see it as a more symbolic than physical attack. But for many, the impact of abuse is also physical. “

Another reluctance is also expressed by those who explain that the attachment of offenses as different as contraception or rape to the same commandment does not amount to relativizing the faults. “It’s a matter of matter, of legal classification, emphasizes a specialist in canon law. This is the case in all the commandments. In attacks on “Thou shalt not kill” appear acts as different as slapping, punching or premeditated murder. However, they are not considered equivalent. “

→ TRIBUNE. Report of the Ciase: “Canon law must be better known to all”

“The basic problem is that graduality is not taught enough, suggests another Vatican source. Some, obsessed with masturbation or contraception, have used this classification to make things less serious too serious. But on the merits, the current texts are clear: everything is not placed on the same level. ” The fact remains that if this development were to take place, it should necessarily concern the universal Church, and not only France. And therefore have the approval of the Pope. Jean-Marc Sauvé will undoubtedly have the opportunity to talk to François about it, during a meeting scheduled in Rome, on December 9.

Extracts from recommendations nbone 11 and 37

11. Sift through:

what the paradoxical excess of fixation of Catholic morality on sexual questions can have of counterproductive as regards the fight against sexual abuse, the choice to include the whole of human sexuality in the only sixth commandment of the Decalogue;

– promote doctrinal reflection aimed at ensuring that the doctrine on sexuality is not separated from the demands of the social doctrine of the Church and from the equal dignity of every human person.

37. To qualify, in canon law, sexual violence committed against minors and vulnerable persons, substitute for the reference to the sixth commandment (“You will not commit adultery”),
a reference to the fifth commandment (“You will not kill”), in order to harmonize
the interpretation of canon 1398 § 1 of the code of canon law and to deal with any deviation from this norm.


A new criminal law soon in force

A very important update of the repressive aspect of canon law will come into force on December 8, creating in particular a specific article on sexual abuse committed by priests against minors or people in a state of weakness. The new canon 1398 provides that any priest committing a sexual offense “With a minor or a person habitually affected by an imperfect use of reason or with a person to whom the law recognizes similar protection” could be sanctioned or even excluded from the priesthood. These crimes are now placed in a section on “Crimes against human life, dignity and freedom”. They nevertheless always remain attached to the sixth commandment of the Decalogue.


→ VIDEO Sexual abuse in the Church: Catholics facing shock


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