KIERAN TAPSELL. A Response to Francis Sullivan

I agree with what Francis Sullivan has said in the edited version of his speech to Catalyst for Renewal. But there is a recitation of history in the full version that cannot go unchallenged.  

“The posturing and spin of years past has been seen for what is was – an avoidance of the truth and a failed attempt to divert the public from the scale of the abuse and the depths to which Church officials had sunk as they tried to keep it hidden. Moreover it was also a deliberate effort to keep senior Church figures who were implicated in the mismanagement or worse of this scandal out of the public gaze.

And what is most confounding is that none of this was constructed out of any agreed plan on the part of the Church leadership as a whole. There was no secret meeting of leaders in which the strategy of concealment and cover-up was formulated. The way in which leaders responded to abuse allegations, to move priests, to ignore evidence, to dismiss claims, was consistent. It was as if it had been built into their DNA. In most western countries the leaders of Catholic Church authorities have acted in the same way. Almost as if there was a roadmap to follow. Yet there has been no roadmap, rather an institutional culture hell-bent on self-protection and self-preservation.”

The assertion that there was no “secret meeting” and no “road map” is simply not true. The secret meeting took place on 9 June 1922 between Pope Pius XI and Cardinal Merry del Val and presumably other members of the then Roman Curia. The document produced at the meeting, Crimen Sollicitationis, was a secret law that was to be kept in the secret archives, was not to be published, was not to be commented on by canon lawyers, and was to be used by bishops as required. It imposed the secret of the Holy Office on all information obtained by the Church’s internal inquiries about child sexual abuse by clerics. Breach of the secret incurred automatic excommunication, which could only be lifted by the pope personally. There was no exception for reporting to the civil authorities.

In 1946, the Spanish canon lawyer, Aurelio Yanguas SJ said that the purpose of this roadmap was to take “swift, decisive and secret action” before these crimes reached the civil courts so that the Church could be spared the humiliation of having priests in the public dock as sex offenders. The requirement in Crimen Sollicitationis to try and cure the priest before dismissal made the “swift” and “decisive” action impossible, but keeping these crimes hidden from the civil authorities to avoid the feared “humiliation” was very successful.

The road map actually started 5 years earlier with the abrogation by the 1917 Code of Canon Law of seven papal and Church Council decrees requiring child sex abusing priests to be handed over (not just reported) to the civil authorities. The strictest secrecy on allegations and information about child sexual abuse by clergy was continued by Pope Paul VI’s Instruction Secreta Continere, by Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutlela of 2001, and its revision by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. There were no exceptions for reporting these crimes to the police until 2010, and then it was limited to where the civil laws required it.

I agree with Francis Sullivan’s statement that the cover up response by bishops “had been built into their DNA.” Canon law created by Popes Benedict XV in 1917 and Pope Pius XI in 1922 was a reflection of the culture in the Church leadership at the time, that the Church was a “perfect society” fully capable of protecting the Catholic Community from child sexual abuse, and the Church did not need any assistance from the State in achieving that. The State had no need to know about clergy crimes against children, and for the avoidance of loss of faith through scandal, it ought not to know about it.

Once that culture of secrecy and clericalism had found its way into canon law, and was repeatedly reaffirmed by subsequent canonical decrees, it became entrenched in the DNA of the whole Church leadership. The practice of secrecy became internalised and reflexive.

The intimate connection between law and culture has been the subject of much academic writing over the last 40 years. In 2003, Cardinal Francis George, regarded as one of the American Church’s most important intellectuals, accepted the principle in an article in the 2003 Ave Maria Law Review that the passing of a law entrenched and internalised the culture behind it. He was writing about civil law, but the principle is equally applicable to canon law.

In 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to the Vatican’s chief canon lawyer, Cardinal Castillo Lara complaining about the obstacles that canon law put in the way of bishops in dismissing clerics for child sexual abuse. His request for a simpler procedure was rejected because it would interfere with the rights of priests. After the Murphy Commission found in 2009 that the “structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated the cover up” in the Archdiocese of Dublin, Ratzinger, then Pope Benedict XVI, wrote a Pastoral Letter to the people of Ireland in March 2010. Instead of acknowledging his own and his predecessors’ responsibility for the cover up, he blamed it on the Irish bishops for not following these same “long established norms of canon law” about which he complained in 1988.

This avoidance of the truth is just another example of an “institutional culture hell-bent on self protection and self preservation”, and in this case to protect the reputation of every pope since 1917.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson told the Royal Commission: “However great the faults of the Australian bishops have been over the last thirty years, it still remains true that the major obstacle to a better response from the Church has been the Vatican.” That is the true version of history.

Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press 2014)


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Stephen de Weger

“Once that culture of secrecy and clericalism had found its way into canon law, and was repeatedly reaffirmed by subsequent canonical decrees, it became entrenched in the DNA of the whole Church leadership. The practice of secrecy became internalised and reflexive”. I think Kieran is right on the ball here. What we are dealing with here is the beliefs/attitudes/behaviour continuum. There are three contexts in which beliefs-attitudes-behaviors continua reside: the psychological/individual; the sociological/communal; and the ideological/the dogmatic. The latter, the ideological/dogmatic is that particular construct of society that takes on a life of its own, one above the psychological and… Read more »

Patricia Boylan

Once again brilliant response. However, in the pulpit, our local priest called it ‘fake news’.


Thank you Keiran for doing everything you can to restore the true good name of the Church. As Bob above says, if it wasn’t for true Catholics like you and the others he mentions, we would indeed be heading even further in the wrong direction.

Bob Cullen

Thank you, Kieran, for helping me (and others) to a better understanding of the history of how the terrible situation developed. I’m so thankful that Francis Sullivan has had the courage to speak publicly and have his talk published to outline some steps for a way forward. I think that so many people like myself are very grateful to Francis Sullivan, Bp Geoffrey Robinson, Bp Vincent Long and yourself for your example in how we can work to advocate for change within the Church to be true followers of Jesus.

Another great pericope of church history from Kieran Tapsell. Most human beings do not want their mistakes exposed, but the Church is obliged by the basic principles on which it is based (“Do unto others ..”) to a moral imperative to live accountability. Kieran’s report of the abrogation of previous good principles by the 1917 Code of Canon Law and the “secret law” of 1922 is great scholarship. I have recently learned the art of opening rock oysters. One has to effectively plunge the knife in at a certain point and then lift the lid. The poor oyster is then… Read more »

Lynne Newington

Absolutely Kieran, I’ve just sent a response on the same point not written as elequently, inluding copy of an article written years ago where it stated Abuser must go, yet knowing full well they can’t be sacked, as Mark Coleridge pontificated also some time ago.
They must think we’re fools altogether.

Gsrry Evetett

Well said Kisran. The same culture that covetrdup the sex abuse also covers up matters financial; msjor “pastoral* decisions; aspects of planning snd other impotant facets of Church life. When confronted about the lack of transparency and accountability, the laity are told we have no need to know sbout such matters
It is the same clerical and hierarchical structure and processes that have been protected by Canon Law for far too long.
Brimg on the change

Peter Johnstone

It seems very clear that Sullivan and Tapsell agree on the substantial issue, namely that there was “an institutional culture hell-bent on self-protection and self-preservation”, and that that “the cover up response by bishops ‘had been built into their DNA’.” As Francis Sullivan observed, “If the Church in Australia doesn’t see continuous, concerted change from our leaders driven and backed by an active and demanding Catholic Community, then our Church as a religion will become a marginalized rump, stripped of credibility and relevance, left to preach to an ever aging congregation with eyes on an ever dimming here after.” Sullivan… Read more »