Whenever there has been an inquiry into the Catholic Church’s handling of child sex abuse by its clergy, the Church has claimed that child sex abuse was some sort of hidden problem that the whole world, including the Church, had only just discovered. It has done this in the United States, Canada, Ireland, and now in Australia.
The Victorian Church in its submission, “Facing the Truth” to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, and the Australian bishops’ September 2013 submission to the Royal Commission on Towards Healing make the claim that there was a “developing awareness” of child sexual abuse in the 1970s, implying that very little was known about it before. In the last 40 years a lot more attention was paid to the problem, and there is now a greater understanding of the damage done to children. But the Church keeps raising this as if this were an excuse for its behaviour in failing to report such crimes to the police and failing to dismiss the offending priests.
Sexual abuse is a new name for an old crime – raping and sexually assaulting children. There is nothing new about it, either in society or in the Church. And the history of the Church shows that until 1922, it took clergy sexual abuse of children very, very seriously.
The first century handbook for Christians, the Didache, has an explicit prohibition on adult men having sex with boys. The first Church law against the abuse of boys was passed at the Council of Elvira in 306CE, that is, it was not just a sin, but a crime to be punished. St. Basil of Caesarea, the fourth century Church Father, (330-379CE) required clerics or monks who had sexually abused children to be jailed, and when released should be subject to supervision without any contact with children. St. Bede the Venerable (672-735 CE) in England wrote in his Penitentials that clergy who had sex with boys should be imprisoned for 3 to 12 years on a diet of bread and water. St. Peter Damian in his Book of Gomorrah (1051CE) recommended to Pope Leo IX that clerics who had sex with children should be immediately dismissed from the priesthood. Gratian’s Decrees, the most important source of canon law, required clerics who abused children to be punished also by the civil law. And then there were the decrees of Popes Alexander III, Innocent III, Leo X, Pius V and those from the Third and the Firth Lateran Councils and the Council of Trent in 1551 requiring priests who sexually abused children to be dismissed from the priesthood, and then handed over to the civil authority for further punishment. In the 18th century the practice of the Holy Office was that once a priest had been dismissed for child sexual abuse, he could never be reinstated.
That all changed in 1922 when Pope Pius XI issued Crimen Sollicitationis, imposing the Church’s top secret classification “the secret of the Holy Office” on allegations and information derived from canonical investigations of child sexual abuse by clergy. That canon law was continued by Pius XII; by John XXIII, (who reissued it in 1962); by Paul VI, (who confirmed pontifical secrecy with his decree Secreta Continere) (John Paul I doesn’t count – he died 33 days after being elected); by John Paul II (who imposed pontifical secrecy in his 2001 Motu Proprio, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela) and by Benedict XVI (who confirmed it in his revision of the 2001 Motu Proprio). Benedict XVI even expanded the reach of pontifical secrecy in 2010 by extending it to cover clergy who sexually abused intellectually impaired adults and the possession by priests of child pornography. The awareness of sexual abuse by clergy was not new. What was new was the overturning of 1500 years of canon law in 1922, with the Church setting up a system to hide these clergy crimes from the civil authority.
Religious Orders and Congregations within the Catholic Church have arisen historically in response to a particular social problem. In 1947, Fr Gerald Fitzgerald founded a religious order in the United States, the Servants of the Paraclete, to deal with alcohol and sexual problems of clergy. Fitzgerald had consistently recommended to the hierarchy a zero tolerance approach for priests who abused children. He even went to see Pope Paul VI about it in 1963. Yet, the Church spin is that it only started “learning” about the extent of the abuse in the late 1970s. What Church authorities learned was that there was an explosion of child sex abuse amongst clergy in the 1960s and 1970s, that it fell away in subsequent decades, and that the psychological damage of sexual abuse was greater than perhaps earlier thought. That’s all.
The Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council submission to the Royal Commission spends 28 pages listing inquiries, reports and investigations of the abuse of children from the 1970s onwards, as if there was nothing worth mentioning before.
The “learning curve” claim was also made by the Irish bishops to the Murphy Commission inquiry into the Archdiocese of Dublin. The Commission rejected it. That rejection in November 2009 did not stop the Victorian bishops trying it out again before the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry in 2012. The Parliamentary Committee also rejected it, and noted that if there was a lack of awareness of the extent of sexual abuse of children within society, the Church contributed to it by concealing it within its own ranks.
The “learning curve” argument is a dead horse waiting to be flogged again at the Royal Commission, if the submission of the Truth Justice and Healing Council on Towards Healing is any guide. And flogged it was at a public hearing of the Commission on 11 December 2013 by Archbishop Coleridge, a member of the Council, when he said, “..again, the Holy See has been on a learning curve in this tormented area.”
Kieran Tapsell is a retired Sydney solicitor and barrister with degrees in Theology and Law.