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Pope updates Vatican law, criminalizing sex abuse, leaks

New laws apply to clergy, others in the city-state

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis overhauled the laws that govern the Vatican city-state on Thursday, criminalizing leaks of Vatican information and specifically listing sexual violence, prostitution, and possession of child pornography as crimes against children that can be punished by up to 12 years in prison.

The legislation covers clergy and laypeople who live and work in Vatican City and is different from the canon law which covers the universal Catholic Church.

It was issued at a critical time, as the Vatican prepares for a grilling by a UN committee on its efforts to protect children under a key UN convention and prevent priests from sexually abusing children. The Vatican signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 yet only now — 23 years later — has it updated its legislation to reflect some of the treaty’s core provisions.


The Vatican’s penal code is based on the 1889 Italian code, and in many ways is outdated. Much of the laws passed Thursday — which range from listing crimes against humanity to the illicit appropriation of nuclear material — bring the Vatican up to date with many UN conventions it has signed over decades.

Others were needed to comply with global norms to fight money-laundering, part of the Vatican’s push toward financial transparency. Others were designed to update Vatican ways with contemporary practice.

One new crime stands out as a response to the leaks of papal data last year that represented one of the gravest Vatican security breaches in recent times.

Paolo Gabriele, the butler for then-Pope Benedict XVI, was convicted by a Vatican court of stealing Benedict’s personal papers and giving them to an Italian journalist. Using the data, Gianluigi Nuzzi wrote a book on turf wars, bureaucratic dysfunction, alleged corruption, and homosexual liaisons in the highest levels of Catholic Church governance.