This month, the French Bishops’ Conference (CEF) established a new legal structure to deal with crimes and offenses committed by clerics and laity within the Church, including sexual abuse of adults.

It is considered a world first: To date, no other bishops’ conference has implemented any national structure of this magnitude.

The tribunal “pénal canonique” national — “national canonical criminal court,” TPCN — is to some degree the result of findings by the French Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE).

In its October 2021 report, the commission demanded such a tribunal. The French bishops had already announced the creation of such a structure during their March 2021 plenary assembly.

Initially planned for April, its implementation was postponed due to delays in the validation of statutes by the Holy See.

The French bishops emphasized these ecclesiastical procedures are specific to the Church and its religious purposes. They do not conflict with national penal law, as the CEF specified in its presentation of the newly created court.

The tribunal is designed to judge most offenses recognized by Church law, including “crimes against the faith and unity of the Church,” those against “the exercise of office,” which also include financial crimes as well as certain crimes against life, dignity, and human freedom, such as sexual assaults against adults.

Cases of sexual abuse of minors fall under what canon law calls the “delicta graviora” — “the more grave delicts.” These will be tried directly by the Vatican, as will penal cases involving bishops and all appeals to decisions by the TPCN.

By acquiring exclusive jurisdiction in criminal matters, the French tribunal allows for diocesan and inter-diocesan courts to rule primarily on applications for matrimonial nullity in the future.

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The lack of competent staff to investigate criminal cases at the diocesan level and the resulting heterogeneity of jurisprudence was one of the main motivations for creating the tribunal. The most important one remains the desire of the CEF to “distance the handling of cases from the dioceses where the acts were committed.”

In an interview with Catholic weekly newspaper La Vie, the president of the Council for Canonical Questions at the CEF, Bishop Joseph de Metz-Noblat, said that “in recent years, [the French bishops] have been thinking about finding a way to ‘relocate’ judicial criminal trials so that the bishop of the accused cleric is no longer at the center of the proceedings.”

“Several ideas were raised, including having the cases handled in a distant diocese, but, fairly quickly, we agreed on the idea of a specific court that could be the reference jurisdiction for all our dioceses,” he said.

“For many bishops, this will be a relief: we initiated the creation of this tribunal to get out of a situation where the bishop must be both the brother of his priests and their judge. It was important to clarify the registers of their relationship.”

The diocesan bishops, however, will remain responsible for the preliminary investigations and the introduction of the cause by bringing it before the tribunal.

Bishops will also be in charge of implementing the sentences, which can fall under any of the three categories known by canon law: The “expiatory” type — such as a fine, deprivation of an office or function; the dismissal from the clerical state; or of the censures also known as the “medicinal” type by canon law, and which include excommunication.

Nevertheless, they will no longer have a monopoly on bringing cases before the criminal court, which will now be open to “any Catholic, or any person who feels aggrieved by the criminal behavior of a Catholic within the Church’s activities.” It is then up to the national official presiding over the TPCN to decide whether the result of the preliminary investigation initiated by the bishop requires the opening of a trial.

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The composition of this new structure itself is also considered of unprecedented nature. Of the 13 judges sworn in after a Mass in Paris on Dec. 5, five are laypeople, four of whom are women.

This change also echoes the CIASE’s recommendation to integrate within the tribunal “not only expert priests but also specially trained lay judges.”

While this initiative already meets with a clear consensus within the Church of France, the question of financing the high costs that this judicial body will require — already raised by some observers — has not yet been clarified by the CEF.