Emergency de-bunking! Vatican City

The Twitterverse is suddenly agog at the news that the age of sexual consent in Vatican City is 12. That’s because Catholic priests are all pedos, right?! And yet, how can such a thing possibly be the case without having already been exposed?

The problem started when this link started to get passed round:

It says the law of consent for the Vatican is 12.

That’s misleading for several reasons, not least:

1) The law came from the old Italian Codic Penal code, a civil law that Vatican State inherited in 1929. At the time, Italian law stated at the age of consent was 12.

2) It is an arcane law and not enforceable today UPDATE: I called the Vatican Embassy to confirm it’s not enforceable, but they are not there til Monday morning.

3) Even if it was, the law only applies to citizens of Vatican State, which is 824 people.

4) All 824 citizens are prelates and guards. No children are citizens of Vatican State, and never have been. UPDATE: Thanks to @madgestar for pointing out that the citizenship can be extended to children. That does not mean you can legally have sex with them though! Here’s a list of all the current citizens.

UPDATE: 5) Still looking into this, but some sources (none primary, so far) say that the law may only have applied (still does apply?) to citizens of equal age.

UPDATE: 6) This page (odd NZ conservative website) says that Italian law still applies:

“From what I can determine, the source of this information comes from the Wikipedia page listing the age of consent for all countries around the world [ref]. It argues that once these laws came into existence in 1929, they were fixed from then on. This is not so. The pact allowed for the laws of Italy, as they changed, to continually apply to the Vatican. Currently, this age is 14/16. Specifically:

The age of consent in Italy is 14 years, with a close-in-age exception that allows those aged 13 to engage in sexual activity with partners who are less than 3 years older. The age of consent rises to 16 if one of the participants has some kind of influence on the other (e.g. teacher, tutor, biological or adoptive parent)”

UPDATE: 7) In trying to confirm the above, it seems that the 1929 treaty was updated in 1984, so that may help shed some light on whether general Italian law applies in this case rather than the archaic law. The original treaty “also allowed for the use of Italian law as well as provincial and municipal Roman law when they did not conflict with canon law, the rules of the Lateran Treaty (and, later, the 1984 Concordat), or divine law.” from here.

Further to point 6, this BBC article confirms that in 2009 the Vatican did indeed decide to divorce itself from general Italian law, so that new Italian laws would no longer automatically apply. They’re worried about new Italian laws like letting homosexuals marry, so they elected to opt out entirely. If ‘new’ Italian laws automatically apply to the Vatican, then that would include the updated age of consent laws, which are currently 14. Not much better than 12, but still.

This is what I was expecting the Embassy to confirm, but we’ll have to wait til Monday to know for sure.

Can we stop the OMGing now? Thanks.

EDIT: because this was an emergency debunking, I may update it as I get more info. I have read in a couple of places that the law was updated at some point to 14, but can’t find a decent source for that. Either way it’s still an arcane law.

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  1. @Aaron: Also an excellent point :D

    And of course, one cannot but help cynically point out that had the Catholic Church not earned itself such a massive and accurate reputation for protecting pedos, this wouldn’t have spread in the first place. The Vatican = Pedos assumption is pretty much the Catholic Church’s own damn fault.

    Still, misinformation is misinformation, and I have no evidence that any sort of paedophilia has occurred in Vatican State.

    If this really was the age of consent there, it’d be the pedo tourist haven of the world.

  2. @rumleech: There may be hoo-hah yet to be had, perhaps the Vatican will now be forced to spend some of its gold on repealing the old law. I called the Embassy but they’re not available til Monday morning now, boo.

  3. Well done. Two questions: 1) Aren’t we supposed to refer to it as “The Holy See” when talking about it as a political (legal) entity? 2) How on earth did you know about this obscure, arcane Italian law?

  4. @spellwight:
    It’s at the onset of puberty in two Mexican states, as it is in Bolivia.

    And it’s 13 in Argentina, the Comoros, Guyana, Japan, Niger, Senegal, South Korea and Spain (where it was 12 until 1999).

    It’s 14 in many countries round the world, especially within Europe. A few countries have no age of consent laws, only requiring the couple to be married to each other. Among those countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have no minimum age for marriage.

  5. @DataJack: Holy See My Arse. That’s all I have to say on that matter :D

    I don’t know how the original list on Twitter came to the attention of anyone, but I was first shown it today on MSN by DC Turner (at which point I googled because it seemed wrong), and then about an hour later it popped up on Twitter via @glinner, at which point it was re-tweeted so much that I felt a rapid response post was needed.

    It’s unfolding into an interesting story though! Wish I’d called the Embassy earlier, I hate having to wait to clarify stuff. At present we’re in a sort of ‘well it may be technically legal or it may not be or general Italian law may apply instead’ state which is rubbish.

  6. It’s not as if consent matters to the Catholic clergy before they star abusing children. However considering they ritually enact cannibalism every weekend it’s hardly surprising they have poor morality.

  7. Actually, I’d say 14 is a whole hell of a lot better than 12. I mean, the difference between 12 and 14 isn’t really like, say, the difference between 37 and 39. A lot happens in those two years.
    Here in Denmark, it’s 15. I think that’s a pretty reasonable figure.

  8. @Tracy King: Creepy isn’t the right word. Age of consent is part of a much larger discussion of youth sexuality. A 10 year old is obviously a child, and therefore unable to give consent, and an 18 year old is obviously an adult; the problem is that in-between, things aren’t so simple. We may think that 13 year olds having sex is less than ideal, but ultimately this decision can only be made by the person, not the family or the State. Age of consent laws exist to protect children from being abused, but they must be sufficiently flexible to allow teenagers to develop their sexuality freely. As Neil Gaiman pointed out, sexual awakening is something that happens to “few of us (…) exactly on our eighteenth birthdays (or whatever your local age of consent or representation happens to be).” (

    (to clarify, i’m talking about consent between teenagers, as seems to be the case in the Philippine legislation.)

  9. @thaismcrc: Agreed. The law has to draw a line, but individuals rarely fall neatly either side of it. Myself, I wasn’t ready for sexual activity until I was nearly 18, but I’ve known 15-year-olds in relationships who have suffered no ill-effects from being sexually active (although IIRC there is a slightly increased risk of cervical cancer in younger women).

    So yes, it depends on the individual and who they are having sex with. The law can’t make such distinctions though. Blunt instrument and all that.

    As for 14…two 14 year olds is less creepy than a 14 yo and and a 50 y-o, mostly because of the implied manipulation/difference in emotional maturity.

  10. @Tracy King:

    I might be totally making this up, but I think the increased risk of cervical cancer isn’t necessarily from the age, but from the risk of being more likely to have more partners.

    So if a girl loses her virginity at 15 and her twin sister loses it at 18, by the time they’re 19, the first girl will probably have had more partners than her sister. Thus increasing her risk of HPV… which increases her risk of cervical cancer.

    But like I said, that could be a hypothesis I made up since I don’t have any idea where that info came from.

  11. @Elyse: We need an emergency-debunk to find out! Which means we could end up in a recursive loop.

    What you say makes sense though. If it wasn’t Friday night I’d go and Google a whole lot. As it is, let’s say “don’t have orgies too soon, kids!” and leave it at that.

  12. @Elyse: You’re both right. In the mid 1990s it was hypothesized that early age of first sexual encounter was an independent risk factor for HPV infection- it had to do with the cervical mucus defenses within a certain number of years of menses (as I recall). There haven’t been any studies to back that up that I’m aware of, however. Of note, in that same time frame birth control pills were identified as a risk factor for HPV- but again that boiled down to lack of condom use, it wasn’t an independent risk factor.

    Most studies support that the young age at first sexual encounter is not an independent risk factor and instead is a marker of higher risk sexual practices, including a greater number of sexual partners. There’s a good, recent prospective study out of China that supports this:

    The study finds no statistically significant difference in age at first coitus, but does find a significant difference in number of partners.

  13. There’s another historical point that is possibly relevant, but I have yet to see mentioned. Ancient Roman law had no age of consent as such; however, there were minimum ages at which marriage (the only venue in which a respectable female Roman was expected to have a sexual relationships) was legally recognized, and for a girl this was 12, based apparently on a generalized concept of the age of puberty (while for boys it was 14, though some jurists held that there must also be a physical examination to establish maturity). Studies of such evidence as there is support the idea that first marriage in their teens was not unusual for girls at the time, and we have similar evidence for later periods.

    Via various codifications, including the major one by the Eastern Roman (a. k. a. “Byzantine”) Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-65 CE), Roman law became very influential on later European (and thence colonial) legal codes, including the Canon Law of the (Catholic) Church, which in turn was of course influential in officially or predominately Christian countries, and Canon Law adopted from Roman the minimum marriageable age of 12.

    Via these routes, this age entered other legal codes as the minimum age of marriage, and later, when age of consent legislation began to be created, that obviously became a baseline for a minimum age, though many jurisdictions adopted higher ages of consent and / or have since raised the ages of marriage and / or consent. Some, however, have been very late in doing this: in South Africa in the late 1990s, for example, following the decriminalization of male homosexual behaviour, the age of consent for heterosexual partners was 16, for homosexual 19 (since equalized), but a girl could still be legally married at 12 with the consent of her parents – in this case, the age entered the legal code from the combination of Roman and Dutch law brought by early settlers beginning in the 17th century.

  14. There seems to have been no legal age of consent in certain diocees (dicoces?) in the USA in the past, so what is the problem with new revelations?

  15. So wait, you called the Vatican… and they are CLOSED until Monday? I know for a fact that the Pope is supposed to be WORKING on Sunday at least! Seems to me the weekend, what with Saturday getting ready for the ONE FRIGGIN DAY the Pope HAS to work, and then Sunday, when the Pope and his peeps are expected to show up and WORK that there would be lots of people to answer the phones. Monday, heck ok, take the day off then after that BIG Sunday push, but “sorry the Vatican is closed on Sundays” doesn’t cut it. It’s the one day we all KNOW it’s open.

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