Holy See response to Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission: another example of clericalist obstinance

Sep 10, 2020

It is almost three years since the Royal Commission inquiring into child sexual abuse recommended that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) request from the Holy See responses on 14 matters. The Holy See responded in February 2020 with ‘observations’. Seven months later the ACBC has forwarded them to the Commonwealth Attorney-General and made them public.

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is widely regarded as the most thorough and most credible assessment of clerical sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church. Its 17 volumes of evidence and recommendations, set out in 7,400+ pages, is the most detailed and comprehensive of any inquiry – church-sponsored or state-sponsored – anywhere in the world.

Among its many recommendations on the Catholic Church in its December 2017 Final Report were 14 specifically addressed to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), urging them to engage with the Holy See on a range of matters relating to the universal law and practice of the Catholic Church. The ACBC referred the recommendations to the Holy See in August 2018, but only now, two years later, has the ACBC made the Holy See’s response public.

In February 2020 the Holy See issued an undated, unsigned, sans letterhead document with a set of ‘observations’ on all matters in the 14 recommendations. In theological terms ‘observations’ would have to rank very low in the order of church teaching or papal magisterium. In fact, it could be argued that they lack the level of gravitas and authoritative response that the recommendations from a Royal Commission Report deserve and warrant.

But what should be made of these observations that the ACBC has been sitting on for the past 7 months and discussing in secret? Are they so astonishing or controversial that the ACBC has felt compelled to keep them secret from the Commonwealth Government who funded the Royal Commission to the tune of around $500 million, and from the Australian public whose taxes paid for the inquiry? Or has the ACBC just been engaging in yet another of its ‘delay and straight-bat’ plays?

Essentially, with these ‘observations’ the Holy See has rejected all but two of the Royal Commission’s proposals passed on to it by the ACBC. It is yet another example of a distressing and appalling exercise in clericalist intransigence and power entrenchment.

At no stage does the Holy See seriously engage with the weight of evidence meticulously set out in Volume 16 (Book Two) of the Royal Commission’s reports, and focussed specifically on the Catholic Church in Australia. Whilst there is the ritual generic condemnation of child abuse committed by priests and religious men and women, the Holy See’s observations show absolutely no empathy for the victims who have been suffering for decades, nor for their families who have suffered with them. It shows no awareness that many have even taken their own lives as a result of the abuse they suffered as innocent children.

While it is true the Catholic Church has made some changes to its regulatory and canonical processes, especially since Pope Francis haltingly then finally grasped the nettle in February 2019, the overriding truth is that the Holy See, and the Catholic Church generally, has not yet dealt with the underlying culture of ‘clericalism’ which assumes that clerics are, and meant to be, the active dominant elite in the Church, and the laity the passive subservient mass.

Holy See ‘observations’

The Holy See’s response accepts just two of the fourteen recommendations. Both relate to technical canonical issues that child sexual abuse should be classified as a ‘canonical crime’, and not just taken as a ‘moral failing’, and that the acquisition, possession and distribution of child pornography be included as a delict (Rec. 16.9) – this occurred in May 2019. The second concerns the abrogation of the Pontifical Secret (Rec. 16.10) which concerns allegations and disciplinary processes – this occurred in December 2019.

Episcopal Appointments (Rec. 16.8)

On the recommendation for a transparent episcopal appointment process, the Holy See insists on maintaining the status quo. It claims that lay men and women are being consulted, but no one knows how many or who they are! It has rejected the solution contained in the agreement the Holy See made in 2018 with the mainland Chinese Communist Government wherein a diocesan body containing clergy and lay people openly discusses and jointly selects a priest candidate to be their next bishop, which must be approved by the Chinese Bishops Conference, and then by the Chinese Government, before the Holy See gives its final approval. The status quo is defended by the Holy See on the grounds that a “certain discretion out of respect for the candidate” has to be maintained.

Statute of Limitations, Imputability and Other Canonical Issues (Recs. 16.12,13, 55, 56, 17)

The Holy See rejects the time limit (or Statute of Limitations in common-law countries) recommendation – which had already been raised by the Holy See from 10 to 20 years in 2010 – on the grounds that “fallibility of memory, with the passage of time and the lack of proofs concerning events from the distant past, make it difficult to reach the level of maturity required in criminal proceedings”.

Also rejected is the Royal Commission’s imputability recommendation which proposed that a diagnosis of paedophilia be not relevant to or related to the prosecution or penalty. The Holy See’s diminished responsibility argument seems driven by the idea that paedophilia is a ‘sickness’ that uncontrollably drives the offending cleric to groom and abuse his young victim(s).

The Holy See also refuses to accept that diocesan and religious priests, who have been civilly convicted, or have been subject to a substantiated allegation, should be permanently removed from religious office, on the grounds that it would be a direct questioning of the need for moral certainty in a canonical trial, and that the Church “cannot be indifferent to the sinner’s conversion, since it has as a fundamental goal the salvation of souls”.

The recommendation to create local tribunals for canonical trials is still ‘under examination’ by the Holy See, but it is claimed that different conditions in countries across the world make this very difficult.

It also refuses to accept that documents be archived for 45 years, even though the clear evidence from across the world is that victims, on average, take about three decades to disclose their sexual abuse by clerics. While the Holy See cites Canon 489 – which states that document destruction must occur after ten years except for a very brief summary – there is no evidence that such brief summaries were given by diocesan offices to the Australian Royal Commission.

Mandatory Celibacy (Rec. 16.18)

The Holy See firmly rejects the recommendation to introduce voluntary celibacy for Latin-rite clergy. This is despite the fact that there are married priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches, and that married Protestant clergy who convert to the Catholic Church can be ordained as Catholic priests and remain married. It defends mandatory celibacy on the grounds that its origins are based on the life choice of Jesus himself. It also refers to the right to religious freedom to allow this practice even though the State could rightfully not grant the present exemption under the Equal Opportunity Act. The right to religious freedom is a relative, not an absolute, freedom.

It also claims that there is no evidence of a direct link between celibacy and child abuse, pointing out that child sexual abuse exists across all sectors and all types of society. While this is true, it is not on the scale found by the Royal Commission: namely, one in thirteen diocesan priests and one in eighteen religious order priests were found to have sexually abused a child under eighteen between 1950 and 2012. It should be noted that since the departure of celibate religious brothers from their teaching roles in Australian Catholic schools, there have been virtually nil convictions of male lay teachers for child sexual abuse, though several have been charged with viewing child pornography. Catholic schools in Australia are now extremely safe places for children. Also to be noted is that the Holy See does not accept the evidence that there have been virtually no child sexual abuse cases amongst married priests in the Eastern Catholic Churches.

The Confessional Seal (Rec.16.26)

While it was predictable that the Holy See would maintain its ultra-hard line on the total maintenance of the confessional ‘seal’, which it holds to be among the “most sacred treasures of the Church’s life”, surprisingly it makes no reference to the status of a child disclosing his or her abuse in the confessional setting. This was a significant issue of disagreement among the five Australian archbishops giving evidence before the Royal Commissioners at the February 2017 public hearing. While it refers to the recent document issued by the Apostolic Penitentiary on the inviolability of the seal, it does not address the central and ever contemporary theological question: how can the obligation of the seal be reconciled with the precept of charity, which mandates that we should shield our neighbour against physical and spiritual injury to the best of our ability?


Since the Holy See’s observations make no comment, positive or otherwise, on the breadth or depth of the Royal Commission’s analysis and conclusions, it has to be asked, therefore, whether there is any Australian bishop who has concerns with any of the Holy See’s ‘observations’? And if there is such a bishop, will he have the courage and leadership quality to speak publicly about his concern? Or are all the bishops simply engaging in a straight-bat play in the hope and expectation that, given time, the fallout from this Royal Commission will gradually fade away, and then, as a group, they can get back to ‘business as usual’

That the Holy See still doesn’t get it, is sad. But that the Catholic bishops of Australia don’t get it is inexcusable.

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