KIERAN TAPSELL. A Response to Francis Sullivan

I agree with what Francis Sullivan has said in the edited version of his speech to Catalyst for Renewal. But there is a recitation of history in the full version that cannot go unchallenged.  

“The posturing and spin of years past has been seen for what is was – an avoidance of the truth and a failed attempt to divert the public from the scale of the abuse and the depths to which Church officials had sunk as they tried to keep it hidden. Moreover it was also a deliberate effort to keep senior Church figures who were implicated in the mismanagement or worse of this scandal out of the public gaze.

And what is most confounding is that none of this was constructed out of any agreed plan on the part of the Church leadership as a whole. There was no secret meeting of leaders in which the strategy of concealment and cover-up was formulated. The way in which leaders responded to abuse allegations, to move priests, to ignore evidence, to dismiss claims, was consistent. It was as if it had been built into their DNA. In most western countries the leaders of Catholic Church authorities have acted in the same way. Almost as if there was a roadmap to follow. Yet there has been no roadmap, rather an institutional culture hell-bent on self-protection and self-preservation.”

The assertion that there was no “secret meeting” and no “road map” is simply not true. The secret meeting took place on 9 June 1922 between Pope Pius XI and Cardinal Merry del Val and presumably other members of the then Roman Curia. The document produced at the meeting, Crimen Sollicitationis, was a secret law that was to be kept in the secret archives, was not to be published, was not to be commented on by canon lawyers, and was to be used by bishops as required. It imposed the secret of the Holy Office on all information obtained by the Church’s internal inquiries about child sexual abuse by clerics. Breach of the secret incurred automatic excommunication, which could only be lifted by the pope personally. There was no exception for reporting to the civil authorities.

In 1946, the Spanish canon lawyer, Aurelio Yanguas SJ said that the purpose of this roadmap was to take “swift, decisive and secret action” before these crimes reached the civil courts so that the Church could be spared the humiliation of having priests in the public dock as sex offenders. The requirement in Crimen Sollicitationis to try and cure the priest before dismissal made the “swift” and “decisive” action impossible, but keeping these crimes hidden from the civil authorities to avoid the feared “humiliation” was very successful.

The road map actually started 5 years earlier with the abrogation by the 1917 Code of Canon Law of seven papal and Church Council decrees requiring child sex abusing priests to be handed over (not just reported) to the civil authorities. The strictest secrecy on allegations and information about child sexual abuse by clergy was continued by Pope Paul VI’s Instruction Secreta Continere, by Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutlela of 2001, and its revision by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. There were no exceptions for reporting these crimes to the police until 2010, and then it was limited to where the civil laws required it.

I agree with Francis Sullivan’s statement that the cover up response by bishops “had been built into their DNA.” Canon law created by Popes Benedict XV in 1917 and Pope Pius XI in 1922 was a reflection of the culture in the Church leadership at the time, that the Church was a “perfect society” fully capable of protecting the Catholic Community from child sexual abuse, and the Church did not need any assistance from the State in achieving that. The State had no need to know about clergy crimes against children, and for the avoidance of loss of faith through scandal, it ought not to know about it.

Once that culture of secrecy and clericalism had found its way into canon law, and was repeatedly reaffirmed by subsequent canonical decrees, it became entrenched in the DNA of the whole Church leadership. The practice of secrecy became internalised and reflexive.

The intimate connection between law and culture has been the subject of much academic writing over the last 40 years. In 2003, Cardinal Francis George, regarded as one of the American Church’s most important intellectuals, accepted the principle in an article in the 2003 Ave Maria Law Review that the passing of a law entrenched and internalised the culture behind it. He was writing about civil law, but the principle is equally applicable to canon law.

In 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to the Vatican’s chief canon lawyer, Cardinal Castillo Lara complaining about the obstacles that canon law put in the way of bishops in dismissing clerics for child sexual abuse. His request for a simpler procedure was rejected because it would interfere with the rights of priests. After the Murphy Commission found in 2009 that the “structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated the cover up” in the Archdiocese of Dublin, Ratzinger, then Pope Benedict XVI, wrote a Pastoral Letter to the people of Ireland in March 2010. Instead of acknowledging his own and his predecessors’ responsibility for the cover up, he blamed it on the Irish bishops for not following these same “long established norms of canon law” about which he complained in 1988.

This avoidance of the truth is just another example of an “institutional culture hell-bent on self protection and self preservation”, and in this case to protect the reputation of every pope since 1917.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson told the Royal Commission: “However great the faults of the Australian bishops have been over the last thirty years, it still remains true that the major obstacle to a better response from the Church has been the Vatican.” That is the true version of history.

Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press 2014)


Kieran Tapsell is a retired civil lawyer, author and translator.

This entry was posted in Religion and Faith and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to KIERAN TAPSELL. A Response to Francis Sullivan

  1. Avatar Stephen de Weger says:

    “Once that culture of secrecy and clericalism had found its way into canon law, and was repeatedly reaffirmed by subsequent canonical decrees, it became entrenched in the DNA of the whole Church leadership. The practice of secrecy became internalised and reflexive”.

    I think Kieran is right on the ball here. What we are dealing with here is the beliefs/attitudes/behaviour continuum. There are three contexts in which beliefs-attitudes-behaviors continua reside: the psychological/individual; the sociological/communal; and the ideological/the dogmatic. The latter, the ideological/dogmatic is that particular construct of society that takes on a life of its own, one above the psychological and the social, and as such, achieves a somewhat ‘divine’ status, even in secular contexts. These can be found, for example, in the rule of law and statements such as “it’s the law” as if ‘the law’ was indeed written by God. Even though the rule of law, be it good or bad law, is a product of society, it never the less, in time, comes to dictate or at least influence the flavor of the sociological and the psychological, which in turn cyclically feed each other (The Fear of Freedom: Fromm 1960, ix). The result of this tri-fold process is a particular culture.
    In the context of clergy sexual misconduct against children and adults as well as between clerics, the Church has always preferred the ‘bad apple’ explanation. However, if one adopts the tri-fold explanation and uses the bad apple analogy, then what we have is a trinity of causes:
    a) the bad apple (and they do exist, sexually abusive men and sometimes women who are psychologically damaged, and/or, without a moral compass stemming not from rules but from inner conversion and conviction),
    b) the bad apple barrel (the culture both religious e.g. the 20th Century formation of priests and Religious, including post-Vatican 2; and secular – the major sexual/secular revolution: The reality of this element became very clear to me at least when reading a study of 50 gay priests who he interviewed (Wagner 1981). Wagner, himself a gay (and celibate) priest, but wanting simply to expose the hypocrisy of the Church’s approach to gay sexuality, found that only 2 of these men were practicing celibacy; Between the other 48, they had an average of 226 sexual partners, some with ‘only’ 10 partners but some with around 500. How, or where, does one place such activity in this overall picture? I am not at all saying that gay equals child abuse, we know that’s not the case, but how would such levels of and attitudes to sexual activity have a flow on affect to those more inclined either psychosexually or opportunistically towards children/teenagers?)
    Thirdly, there’s what has always been Keiran’s main point – a factor not at all preferred by the Church, when discussing causes:
    c) ‘the bad barrel makers’, (the popes/canon law even Tradition, things/people that be very wrong and if changed – and they can be – could lead to new better beliefs and cultures). Zimbardo outlines this trinity of interconnected causes, (I like to see it as a tri-circular Venn diagram), in his book, The Lucifer Effect (2008). In his TED talk “The Psychology of Evil”, Zimbardo says: “The power is in the system. The system creates the situation that corrupts the individuals, and the system is the legal, political, economic, cultural background. And this is where the power is of the bad-barrel makers. 8:29 If you want to change a person, change the situation. And to change it, you’ve got to know where the power is, in the system”.

    I would also prefer to add two elements into this whole mix: the levels of sexual activity in general, of clergy/Religious (which Sipe says is at least 50% at any one time), and, how this activity creates a context in which blackmail, or personal inaction, and, as well, an unhealthy fear-based repression and closeting of sexuality, has influenced the whole clergy/Church sex abuse scandal of our present era, including especially its covering up.

  2. Avatar Patricia Boylan says:

    Once again brilliant response. However, in the pulpit, our local priest called it ‘fake news’.

  3. Avatar Shannon says:

    Thank you Keiran for doing everything you can to restore the true good name of the Church. As Bob above says, if it wasn’t for true Catholics like you and the others he mentions, we would indeed be heading even further in the wrong direction.

  4. Avatar Bob Cullen says:

    Thank you, Kieran, for helping me (and others) to a better understanding of the history of how the terrible situation developed. I’m so thankful that Francis Sullivan has had the courage to speak publicly and have his talk published to outline some steps for a way forward. I think that so many people like myself are very grateful to Francis Sullivan, Bp Geoffrey Robinson, Bp Vincent Long and yourself for your example in how we can work to advocate for change within the Church to be true followers of Jesus.

  5. Another great pericope of church history from Kieran Tapsell. Most human beings do not want their mistakes exposed, but the Church is obliged by the basic principles on which it is based (“Do unto others ..”) to a moral imperative to live accountability.
    Kieran’s report of the abrogation of previous good principles by the 1917 Code of Canon Law and the “secret law” of 1922 is great scholarship.
    I have recently learned the art of opening rock oysters. One has to effectively plunge the knife in at a certain point and then lift the lid. The poor oyster is then totally exposed. Good work Kieran.

  6. Avatar Lynne Newington says:

    Absolutely Kieran, I’ve just sent a response on the same point not written as elequently, inluding copy of an article written years ago where it stated Abuser must go, yet knowing full well they can’t be sacked, as Mark Coleridge pontificated also some time ago.
    They must think we’re fools altogether.

  7. Avatar Gsrry Evetett says:

    Well said Kisran. The same culture that covetrdup the sex abuse also covers up matters financial; msjor “pastoral* decisions; aspects of planning snd other impotant facets of Church life. When confronted about the lack of transparency and accountability, the laity are told we have no need to know sbout such matters
    It is the same clerical and hierarchical structure and processes that have been protected by Canon Law for far too long.
    Brimg on the change

  8. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    It seems very clear that Sullivan and Tapsell agree on the substantial issue, namely that there was “an institutional culture hell-bent on self-protection and self-preservation”, and that that “the cover up response by bishops ‘had been built into their DNA’.”
    As Francis Sullivan observed,
    “If the Church in Australia doesn’t see continuous, concerted change from our leaders driven and backed by an active and demanding Catholic Community, then our Church as a religion will become a marginalized rump, stripped of credibility and relevance, left to preach to an ever aging congregation with eyes on an ever dimming here after.”
    Sullivan and Tapsell should be thanked by our pastoral leaders for their attempts to get the universal Church to face its shocking failures and dysfunctional governance; only then will the Church be able to fulfil its mission of propagating (rather than effectively denying) the teachings of Jesus.

Comments are closed.