KIERAN TAPSELL: Pope Francis and the Closed Door Syndrome

For all his good points, Pope Francis has a credibility problem over child sexual abuse. Public statements are made, but once the door is closed, the paper that comes out contradicts what has been said. His latest Apostolic Letter, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, is no exception.

In March 2017 Marie Collins, an abuse survivor, resigned as a member of Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, because what was happening behind closed doors conflicted with what was said in public.

From 1996 onwards, four national Catholic bishops conferences requested the Holy See to allow mandatory reporting of all allegations of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities. They were rebuffed. In 2003, the Attorney General for Massachusetts (remember Spotlight?) found that Church officials in Boston believed that canon law prohibited them from reporting abuse to the civil authorities. In 2009, the Murphy Commission in Ireland came to the same conclusion about the cover up in Dublin.

On 16 January 2014, members of the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child asked Bishop Scicluna why Church policy did not provide for mandatory reporting of all cases to the civil authorities, and not just where there were civil reporting laws. His answer was the Church required domestic laws to be followed, but otherwise, it was up to the victims (children or those who ‘habitually have the imperfect use of reason‘) to report the abuse.

On 6 May 2014, Archbishop Tomasi told the United Nations Committee against Torture that the Holy See’s responsibility towards children under the Convention was limited to the 30 or so who lived inside the 44 hectares of the Vatican City, despite the fact that within those walls, the Holy See was deciding whether some 4,000 priest sex abusers from all over the world should have access to children by remaining as priests.

On 26 September 2014, Pope Francis told the United Nations that any attempt by the Church to impose mandatory reporting under canon law could constitute a violation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States. The Church, like so many other international organisations, creates rules for its members living in different countries. This response was like the International Olympic Committee saying that it could not provide codes of conduct against sexual harassment, bribery or even rough play because that is a matter for the governments of the place where the athletes live.

On 15 February, 2016 Cardinal O’Malley, the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, stated: ‘…our obligations under civil law must certainly be followed, but even beyond these civil requirements, we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities.’ The doors closed, and on 16 December 2016, the Commission issued guidelines for national protocols on child sexual abuse. O’Malley’s statement was not included.

On 17 February 2016, after seeing the movie, Spotlight, Archbishop Scicluna said that ‘all bishops and cardinals must see this film, because they must understand that it is reporting that will save the church, not ‘omertá’, a reference to the Sicilian Mafia’s code of silence.

On 17 December 2017, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in its Final Report found that the pontifical secret over allegations of child sexual abuse against clergy still applied where there are no applicable civil reporting laws. Its recommendation 16.10 was that canon law should be amended ‘so that the pontifical secret does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse.’ One way of complying with this was to have mandatory reporting to the civil authorities under canon law.

On 12 September 2018, Pope Francis summoned the heads of Catholic bishops conferences to a conference in Rome in February 2019 to discuss the sexual abuse crisis. Two speakers, Linda Ghosina and Cardinal Marx called for the repeal of the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse. Archbishop Scicluna said it was “counterproductive”. The doors closed.

On 29 March 2019, Pope Francis imposed mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse to the Vatican City’s judicial authorities. That protection only applies to the 30 or so children who reside there. The millions of children under the Church’s care throughout the world had to wait for a change in canon law to have the same protection.

On 7 May 2019, Pope Francis issued his Apostolic Letter, Vos Estis Lux Mundi. It made no mention of the pontifical secret being abolished, and it did not expressly impose mandatory reporting. Article 1§1(b) created a canonical crime for bishops and religious superiors for ‘actions or omissions intended to … avoid civil investigations…’ It was at least arguable that if they failed to report, they breached this provision. In other words, it could be interpreted, by a roundabout method, that the new law imposed mandatory reporting.

However, when Archbishop Scicluna was asked about the failure of Vos Estis Lux Mundi to provide for mandatory reporting, he made no mention of Article 1§1(b), and said, ‘we cannot tell states what their citizens should be doing.’ This was essentially the same answer that Francis gave to the United Nations in 2014.

Another excuse given was that different legal systems make a universal reporting law impossible, and that imposing one could endanger the church in places where Catholics are a persecuted minority.

In 1842 there was a universal law of the Church that penitents should denounce priests who solicited sex in the confessional. The Holy Office under Pope Gregory XVI issued a decree relieving the faithful of this obligation in the lands of “schismatics, heretics and Mohammedans”. Every legal system creates exceptions to general laws, and the Code of Canon Law creates such exceptions 1,300 times. Canon 87 of the Code also allows for dispensations.

It seems that the closed door syndrome mentioned by Marie Collins is still alive and well in the Vatican. The expectations raised at the Vatican child sex abuse conference about the pontifical secret and reporting to the civil authorities have not appeared in Vos Estis Lux Mundi,the document arising from it.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired civil lawyer and the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse and of a submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Canon Law, A Systemic Factor in Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. He was also a member of the canon law panel before the Australian Royal Commission.

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