A few weeks ago the Roman Church gathered its heavenly forces, summoned her faithful from around the world to assemble in the eternal city, and in the midst of extravagant Renaissance-style splendor, infallibly declared two of her recent CEOs to have been translated into the presence of Almighty God, amid hosts of angels and Archangels on high. Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were enrolled in the official canon of saints by Pope Francis, in the presence of his predecessor Pope Benedict and a gaggle of episcopal turkeys. Business as usual in Rome. Crazy triumphal ceremonial. A vial of papal blood in one reliquary, a sliver of Pope’s skin in the other. You have to admit that in view of what was happening down in the dungeons under the Vatican and the scandals unraveling in parishes and schools, the Roman Church was exhibiting a high degree of religious chutzpah. To engage in such a public display, she had to have real balls – and no brains. CEOs giving each other a brotherly leg-up, encouraging pats on the back, colorful ribbons, medals and badges, while in hot-spots throughout the world the company was coughing up blood.
In 2002, in a fit of self-aggrandizement for such a tiny kingdom with no midwives to call on and no entitlement to middle class paid parental leave (in fact, no middle class), the Vatican signed a United Nations convention which sought to prevent the practice of torture and to suppress all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Little did Rome imagine that this convention would come back to bite her on the bottom. When the Holy See recently made its very first appearance before the Torture Committee of the United Nations, its ambassador in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, under attack for the Vatican’s pathetic attempts to draw a line under clerical sexual abuse scandals throughout the world, asserted that its jurisdiction to enforce the United Nations treaty provisions stopped at the borders of the eternal city state. Pure nonsense. Specious casuistry. Moral gobbledygook. It was disingenuous, even dishonest for the Vatican to run such a line in an attempt to get out from under its involvement in the worldwide, damaging scandal caused by its ordained officers inflicting torture on innocent children. In Potiphar’s Wife, the author, Kieran Tapsell, a retired lawyer, an old ex-seminarian from Manly and a good friend, tells us why the Vatican cannot escape its responsibility.
Like the Roman poet Virgil who guided Dante through the sultry passages of Hell, Kieran Tapsell takes the hand of his reader and walking backwards, carefully guiding her through the subterranean tunnels under the Vatican, explaining the turns and twists of the Pope’s peculiar legal system, introducing her to the many faceless men in studded cloaks, in coloured frocks and high hats he and his reader meet along the way. Damp, smelly corridors. Shadowy figures, wrinkled and suspicious. The smell of decay in the air. “That’s a pile of detritus over there, blocking our progress.” “An endless maze of obfuscation begins down that laneway where the sewers are overflowing and a collection of canonical garbage bins remain unemptied.” “Those guys we just passed, with their self-satisfied, piogeous smiles, used to work as ecclesiastical spin-doctors for the Vatican, sometimes referred to as ”safe, reactionary theologians”. Did you notice the thinness of their lips and the fork in their tongues?” “In this section, we’re surrounded with secret trap-doors and hidden holes.” “But don’t be afraid. With the help of a Royal Commissioner, we are gradually making our way towards the light.” As your guide will demonstrate, O reader, the pathway through this under-world has been perilous.
With forensic attention, Tapsell traces the Vatican’s responses to the unexpected and faith- shattering revelations of the contamination by predatory priests of the Church’s precious little ones. The way the Roman authorities decided to deal with the scandal caused by paedophile priests changed radically at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1917, with the publication of a codified system of law, Rome abandoned its traditional practice of handing the guilty offender over to the civil authority for punishment. With the stroke of a Latin quill, the new code abandoned the relevant provisions which had been operative for centuries. Then in 1922, with the “publication” of a secret document, Crimen Sollicitationis, Pius XI effectively revived, through the back-door of secrecy, the ancient privilege which provided special treatment for his clerical brothers. Members of the modern clergy who indulged in criminal behavior were to be investigated, charged, tired and punished by the Church’s own ecclesiastical tribunals – and in secret. Those who failed to comply with the Vatican’s order to remain shtum, were to be punished by a very special and terrifying excommunication which could be lifted only by the Pope himself. And the Vatican document which had promulgated this parallel regime had to be kept safe and out of sight in the secret archives of the diocesan curia, for internal use only. A secret law! Secret legal procedures! Just what every institution needs to protect itself and its staff. Ecclesiastical “on–water” events were off limit, beyond scrutiny – and especially beyond the reach of any civil authority.
When the Pope reads this book of Kieran Tapsell, I am hoping he will be shaken to his bowels to think how far his beloved Church has drifted away from Jesus. When Jesus picks it up in the celestial book-shop and turns the pages, I imagine tears of sadness will appear on his bloodless cheeks. The Royal Commissioner might be surprised to find how far the tentacles of this dirty cancer of secrecy and clerical privilege extended, and how tightly they were wrapped around the panting heart of Rome.
When you read this book, some of you won’t be able to put it down. Fascinating. Engrossing. Some will want to burn it – and the author. Others will simply say “I told you so” – and so they did. Some won’t believe a word of it. Just another conspiracy – like the ugly rumours of man-induced climate change. “I don’t care what thousands of scientists say, I don’t care what the evidence is, I don’t accept it – and that’s my right.” What Tapsell has to reveal is confronting and explosive. Rome has played a part, a major part, in the protection of dangerous criminal clerics, and in the cover-up of their predatory pursuit of innocent boys and girls. The Vatican enabled the cancer to grow and spread, more damage to be done, and more lives ruined. The wicked blindness, the clerical stupidity, the incompetence, the arrogance and dishonesty are breathtaking.
In this book, the author unravels the story of Vatican policy of secrecy from 1922 – a story which some might say amounted to national disloyalty, to criminal omission and conspiracy, a story of official double-speak, of blame-shifting, power-plays and petty jealousies. The Vatican promulgated and continued to enforce laws which would undermine the fabric of the communities and the State, and while protecting its own reputation and its priests, which would inevitably cause maximum heartache within families. Explosive devices encased in canonical terminology and manufactured in Rome, to be detonated in homes and in local communities throughout the world.
Potiphar’s Wife is a good read, but disturbing. The author goes a long way to explaining why the Catholic Church has dealt so badly with the scandal of paedophile priests in its ranks and why the Royal Commission, in responding to its terms of reference, can’t avoid making a series of trenchant findings involving the Vatican, and perhaps some recommendations to assist her in the process of putting its haunted house in order.