Kieran Tapsell. Cardinal Pell and the Church’s “Omerta”

Mar 10, 2016

Cardinal George Pell must now be regretting not having come back to Australia to give his evidence to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in the relatively small town of Ballarat in the State of Victoria. By claiming that his medical condition did not allow him to travel, and offering to give video evidence in Rome, he has turned his performance in the witness box into a media feast that otherwise might have gone unnoticed in the international press.

First there was the Tim Minchin song that went viral, “Come Home Cardinal Pell”: . Then the extraordinary donations by Australians of some $A 200,000 to pay for abuse survivors to attend at the Quirinale Hotel in Rome to watch Pell give evidence.

Pell’s performance in the witness box ensured an even greater media coverage. It was repeatedly put to him by counsel assisting the Commission that his claim of lack of knowledge of child sexual abuse in Ballarat was “implausible”, which gives you some idea of the findings that are likely to be made against him in the Commission’s Report. Ever since the Erebus Royal Commission in New Zealand, the Commission is obliged to put to parties being investigated a likely finding to allow them to respond. Pell’s responses only made such a finding more likely.

After the completion of his evidence, Pell met with the survivors in Rome. Survivor David Nagle said that they talked about “the future”, and what Pell could do in his position in the Catholic Church.

One thing Pell can do is to take Pope Francis aside, and tell him how essential it is for him to change canon law to reflect the demands of the United Nations Committees on the Rights of the Child and against Torture that mandatory reporting of all allegations of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities should be imposed by canon law.

At the moment, canon law requires a cover up in most circumstances because very few countries have comprehensive reporting laws. The pontifical secret as defined by Pope Paul VI’s Instruction, Secreta Continere of 1974 is imposed by Art 30 of Pope John Paul II’s Motu Proprio, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, as revised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. The only exception so far allowed is where the civil law requires reporting – a dispensation given to the United States in 2002, and extended to the rest of the world only in 2010. Otherwise, the pontifical secret applies – a position that is confirmed by the Italian and Polish Bishops Conferences’ statements in 2012, 2014 and 2015 that their bishops will not be reporting clergy sexual abuse because their civil laws do not require it.

Now that Cardinal O’Malley, the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has said that it is the ethical and moral obligation of bishops to report all allegations to the civil authorities irrespective of whether there are civil reporting laws, Pope Francis really has no other option but to change canon law to reflect that position.

Bishops on ordination swear an oath to obey “all ecclesiastical laws”, not Cardinal O’Malley’s statements about their ethical and moral obligations. Secreta Continere purports to take away the bishop’s conscience when it comes to the pontifical secret. Some bishops might reject that claim but others would take it seriously, because canon law derives from the Vicars of Christ.

On 26 September 2014, Pope Francis specifically rejected the United Nations demands for mandatory reporting under canon law with the casuistic excuse that such a measure would interfere with the sovereignty of independent States. Where there is no conflict between canon and civil law, canon law interferes with that sovereignty as much as the rules of golf. No country in the world forbids the reporting of child sexual abuse to the civil authorities.

Even Archbishop Scicluna, the former prosecutor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and one of Pope Francis’s legates before the United Nations Committees, has changed his mind from the submission he put to the United Nations Committees: it is up to the victim to report unless there is a civil reporting law binding on bishops. After seeing the movie, Spotlight, Scicluna said that “bishops must understand that it is reporting that will save the church, not ‘omerta,'” – a reference to the Mafia’s code of silence. Yet that is precisely what the pontifical secret requires: a permanent silence on allegations and information obtained by the Church about child sexual abuse by clergy.

If Cardinal Pell really wants to do something about child sexual abuse in the future, he should use his influence to advise Pope Francis to sign a decree that puts into law what Cardinal O’Malley said about the moral and ethical responsibilities of bishops. If he does that, he will go down in history as the Pope who finally put an end to the Church’s “omerta” over clergy sexual abuse of children that has existed since Pope Pius XI’s Instruction Crimen Sollicitationis of 1922.

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

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