KIERAN TAPSELL. A Different Scorecard on Pope Francis

Jun 30, 2017

Pope Francis has rightly been acclaimed for his stand on climate change, poverty, inequality and refugees, but on these issues he can only encourage others to act. When it comes to the role of the laity in Church governance and the cover up of child sexual abuse, Pope Francis’ rhetoric does not match his actions. He will never have the moral authority of a Nelson Mandela while he refuses to initiate changes to canon law that would bring them into line.

Bruce Duncan’s article sets out Pope Francis’ very positive scorecard on issues such as climate change, poverty, inequality, violence and refugees, for which he has rightly been acclaimed.

However, Pope Francis personally can do little about them. He can only encourage others to act. On the other hand, there are two issues about which he can do something within his own Church, namely the role of the laity in Church governance and the cover up of child sexual abuse, where his scorecard reveals that he has badly failed.

Popes are absolute monarchs when it comes to canon law. They have no Houses of Parliament to restrict them, and no Supreme or High Courts to set aside their laws. Their only “constitution” is Scripture and Tradition.

Pope Francis may feel restrained by Scripture and Tradition from having women priests. But there are three other significant positions in Church governance which have no sacramental or liturgical role, and which canon law says cannot be filled by lay people.

Bishops have supreme legislative, executive and judicial power within their own dioceses with canon law being their only restriction. Canon law permits the delegation of executive power to vicars general and episcopal vicars, and judicial power to judicial vicars, but Canons 478 and 1420 require all of them to be priests.

The admirable Bishop Long from Parramatta has recently appointed Sr Catherine Ryan to be his chancellor. Canon law does not require chancellors to be priests.

In Germany, the United Kingdom, and universities, the title “chancellor” carries with it significant executive authority. The role of the chancellor under canon law is to take care of the bishop’s curia records and archives. The bishop’s “chancellor” is a fancy name for a secretary or administrative assistant.

Bishop Long could not have appointed Sr Ryan to be his vicar general or an episcopal vicar. He could not have appointed a lay person, male or female with impeccable canon law qualifications to be a judicial vicar. These canons embody the clericalism that Pope Francis frequently condemns.

The most serious failure on Pope Francis’ scorecard is in relation to child sexual abuse. The pontifical secret is still imposed by canon law on all allegations and information about child sexual abuse by clergy with the only exception (since 2010) where there are civil laws requiring reporting. Most countries in the world have inadequate reporting laws.

The Church’s tradition and canon law spanning back 1500 years taught that child sexual abuse is a crime that needed to be dealt with by punishments that we now only associate with the secular state, and which required imprisonment at the minimum. Seven papal and Council decrees dating back to the 12th century required clergy guilty of such crimes to be stripped of their status as priests and handed over (not just reported) to the civil authorities for punishment – irrespective of whether the civil law required it. In 1917, these decrees were repealed, and in 1922, the Church’s strictest form of secrecy was imposed on all information about these crimes.

Since 1996, the Irish, British, Australian and American bishops have wanted mandatory reporting under canon law irrespective of reporting requirements under civil law. The Holy See has consistently rejected the requests. In 2012, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference sent to the Vatican for approval Towards Healing 2010 which required mandatory reporting. On 22 February 2013 the Holy See informed the Conference that mandatory reporting could apply to everyone else in the Church but not to clerics, and that the law imposing the pontifical secret still applied to them. Protecting priests sex abusers from the civil law by the use of secrecy is a further example of pure clericalism.

In 2014, the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference (of which Pope Francis is the senior bishop, while not its President) announced that Italian bishops would not be reporting clergy sexual abusers to the police because Italian law did not require it – a position consistent with canon law.

In 2014, two United Nations Committees, on the Rights of the Child and against Torture, requested Pope Francis to impose mandatory reporting under canon law. This was no more than a request for the Church to return to its centuries-old tradition that existed before 1917. In September 2014 Pope Francis refused, with the extraordinary excuse that mandatory reporting under canon law would interfere with the sovereignty of independent states. Canon law interferes with such sovereignty as much as the rules of golf.

On 15 February 2016, Cardinal O’Malley, the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors stated that bishops have an ethical and moral obligation to report all allegations of clergy sexual abuse to the civil authorities irrespective of whether there were civil reporting laws. On 6 December 2016, the Commission published its guidelines for national bishops conferences. O’Malley’s statement was not included.

Pope Francis has repeatedly claimed that he and his predecessor, Pope Benedict, have adopted a “zero tolerance” policy towards child sexual abuse. In the professional context, zero tolerance means permanent dismissal. Yet the figures Pope Francis produced to the United Nations in 2014 showed that less than one quarter of all priests who had sexually abused children had been dismissed. That’s 75% tolerance, not zero.

In 2017, Archbishop Coleridge told the Royal Commission that he had requested the dismissal of six priests who had been convicted of child sexual offences. The Holy See only agreed to dismiss one.

The scorecard on Pope Francis over child sexual abuse can best be expressed by Marie Collins, a victim of clergy sexual abuse, who was appointed with much public acclaim as a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. She resigned on 9 February 2017:

“When I accepted my appointment to the Commission in 2014, I said publicly that if I found what was happening behind closed doors was in conflict with what was being said in public, I would not remain. This point has come. I feel I have no choice but to resign if I am to retain my integrity.”

The failures of Pope Francis to live up to his rhetoric are not the actions of a Nelson Mandela.


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 Royal Commission on 9 February 2017.

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