Cracks in the Church Dyke at the Royal Commission. Guest blogger: Kieran Tapsell

Dec 21, 2013

On 19March 2010, after the Murphy Commission in Ireland found that there had been widespread cover up of child sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a “Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland”.  The Murphy Commission had some harsh things to say about canon law and the requirements of secrecy, and found that “the structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated” the cover up. Benedict ignored this criticism, and attacked the bishops for failing to use “the long established norms of canon law” to dismiss these priests. His letter wrote the script for a second cover up:  hide the involvement of six Popes, who, since 1922, had ordered, maintained and confirmed the first cover up: see .

Since 1922, canon law has imposed “pontifical secrecy” on any allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children, preventing the reporting of these crimes to the police. In 1983, through his changes to canon law, Pope John Paul II destroyed any possibility that such priests could be dismissed through the Church’s internal procedures. The consequences of both these things were that these priests were shifted around where they attacked more children.

In 2012 Alex Gibney directed an award winning documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, about the cover up in the United States and Ireland. A reporter in the documentary, Mick Peelo described the angry reaction of an Irish bishop after the pastoral letter: “How dare he blame us,” the bishop said. “Show me where we didn’t follow canon law. Canon law was the problem.” Indeed it was. It had provided the legal framework for the cover up that allowed far more children to be abused than if these priests had been reported to the police, and weeded out the moment they had offended.

The cover up of the six Popes’ responsibility had started in about 2006 when newspaper articles and television programs, like the 2006 BBC Panorama Program, “Sex Crimes and the Vatican”, directly accused the Vatican, and particularly Pope Benedict XVI, of ordering and maintaining a policy of cover up through canon law.  Vatican spokesmen denied that “pontifical secrecy” prevented reporting to the police, saying that it only applied to the Church’s internal procedures. Of course it did, but the Church’s internal investigations were the source of virtually all information about the sex crimes of these priests. Pontifical secrecy did not prevent a bishop who had found a priest in flagrante delicto, in bed with an altar boy, from going to the police, but the chances of his stumbling across that were infinitesimal.

The Victorian Church authorities and the Truth, Justice and Healing Council on behalf of the Australian Church have kept to Benedict’s script at the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and the Royal Commission respectively. In their 150+ page submissions, they make no mention of Crimen Sollicitationis of 1922 or the pontifical secrecy imposed by subsequent decrees of Pope John Paul II in 2001 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

The bishops who gave evidence at the Victorian Inquiry blamed their predecessors in the dioceses of Melbourne and Ballarat, accusing them of effectively facilitating child sex abuse, of being “very naïve”, of making “terrible mistakes” and of “inactivity”. Misguided as these predecessors were, they had been obeying canon law in accordance with their ordination oaths.  Their terrible mistakes were canon law’s terrible mistakes. Cardinal Pell in evidence before the Victorian Inquiry denied that the cover up was Rome’s responsibility, and said it was all the bishops’ fault.

But cracks started to appear in the dyke under the pressure of cross examination. Cardinal Pell admitted that the confidentiality imposed by canon law was now “inappropriate”, and that the Congregation for the Clergy, responsible for disciplining priests for much of the time, “did not get it”. Church officials admitted that the chances of dismissing a priest under canon law were virtually impossible:

Now the cracks in the dyke have widened at the Royal Commission. The Church has claimed that the reforms to canon law in 2001 gave it effective procedures for dealing with sex abuse offenders. All they did was restore the simplified procedures of the kind that existed before 1983. Canon 1341 has not been changed. It still requires the use “pastoral” methods to try to “reform” the priest prior to commencing any canonical proceedings to dismiss him. In 2002, Professor Ghirlanda, the Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Gregorian University said that reporting such crimes to the police was not “pastoral” behaviour. On 19 December 2013, the Royal Commission was told what “pastoral” behaviour meant in terms of the Church’s internal procedures. Bishop Jarrett, the former bishop of Lismore said that the Vatican’s “punishment” in 2008 for an admitted serial sex abuser was requiring him to say Mass for his victims on Fridays and to live “a life of prayer and penance” in a comfortable presbytery.

The most serious obstacle to the capacity of the Church to dismiss priest sex abusers was Pope John Paul ll’s imposition in 1983 of a 5 year limitation period for bringing proceedings for dismissal. The previous canon law under Crimen Sollicitationis had no limitation period. In 2001 the 5 year period was extended to 10 years from the 18th birthday of the victim. Bishop Jarrett agreed with Justice McLellan that even that extended period meant that the “overwhelming majority” of offenses against children would not be reported to the Holy See, which alone has the power under canon law to dismiss a priest.

The evidence of canon law’s role in the cover up is slowly leaking out of Benedict’s badly constructed dyke. The Commission hearings have been adjourned to 22 January 2014. The real issue now is whether the Truth, Justice and Healing Council will come clean over canon law, or the dyke will be opened by a thousand cuts.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired solicitor and barrister with degrees in theology and law.

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