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 lay people 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 gears up for a grilling by a U.N. committee on its efforts to protect children under a key U.N. convention and prevent priests from sexually abusing them. The Vatican signed and ratified the U.N. 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The bulk of the Vatican's penal code is based on the 1889 Italian code, and in many ways is outdated. Much of the hodge-podge of laws passed Thursday - which range from listing crimes against humanity to the illicit appropriation of nuclear material - bring the Vatican up to date with the many U.N. conventions it has signed over the years.
Others were necessary to comply with international norms to fight money-laundering, part of the Vatican's more recent push toward financial transparency. And still others were designed to update the Vatican's legal system with contemporary practice: The new law cancels out lifetime prison sentences, for example, and instead imposes maximum sentences of 30-35 years in prison.
One new crime stands out as an obvious response to the leaks of papal documents last year that represented one of the gravest Vatican security breaches in recent times.
Paolo Gabriele, the butler for then-Pope Benedict XVI, was tried and convicted by a Vatican court of stealing Benedict's personal papers and giving them to an Italian journalist.
Using the documents, journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi published a blockbuster book on the petty turf wars, bureaucratic dysfunction and allegations of corruption and homosexual liaisons in the highest levels of Catholic Church governance.
Gabriele was convicted of aggravated theft and sentenced to 18 months in the Vatican's police barracks. Benedict eventually pardoned him, but his crime devastated the Vatican, shattering the confidentiality that typically governs correspondence with the pope.
In an indication of how serious the Vatican considers such confidentiality, the penalties for violations of the new law are stiff: Anyone who reveals or receives confidential information or documentation risks six months to two years in prison and a (euro) 2,000 euro ($2,500) fine; the penalty goes up to eight years in prison if the material concerns the "fundamental interests" of the Holy See or its diplomatic relations.
Sexual crimes did exist in the previous law, but in a general form in the archaic code as a crime against "good customs."
The new law defines crimes against children under age 18, including the sale of children, child prostitution, recruiting children, sexual violence, sexual acts with children and the production and possession of child pornography.
In the old code, such general crimes would have carried a maximum penalty of three to 10 years, the Vatican said. Under the revision, the punishments go from five to 10 years, with aggravating circumstances bringing the maximum up to 12 years and a fine of 150,000 euros.
Codifying that law answers one of the questions posed to the Holy See last week by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, which will evaluate the Holy See's implementation of the core U.N. treaty protecting children in early 2014.
Other questions will be more problematic for the Holy See to answer, including a request for "detailed information on all cases of child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns" that have been brought to the Vatican's attention over the years.
The Vatican has long considered cases of clerical sex abuse to be the responsibility of local bishops, not the central authority of the Catholic Church.
Vatican officials said it would be wrong to assume that just because these new laws criminalize certain behavior that the behavior previously was legal. It merely means that, 100 years ago, child pornography was not specified as a crime in either the Italian legal code or the Vatican's.
"The introduction of the new regulation is useful to define the specific cases with greater certainty and precisions, and to thus satisfy the international parameters, calibrating the sanctions to the specific gravity of the case," the Vatican foreign minister, Monsignor Dominique Mamberti, wrote in Thursday's Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.