In December 2013, I wrote a piece for this blog entitled, Cracks in the Church Dyke at the Royal Commission, which posed the question: the real issue now is whether the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, (TJHC), representing the Church at the Royal Commission, will come clean over canon law, or the dyke will be opened by a thousand cuts: https://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=1015. The dyke I was referring to was that erected by Pope Benedict XVI in his Pastoral Letter to the Irish people of March 2010, where he ignored the criticisms of canon law by the Murphy Commission in Ireland and its finding that “the structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated the cover up”. Instead, he blamed the bishops for failing to deal with these priests through “the long established norms of canon law.” That was an extraordinary statement because as far back as 1988, as Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he had complained to the Vatican’s chief canon lawyer, Cardinal Castillo Lara about the inadequacies of canon law for dealing with child sexual abuse. He set the strategy to be followed by the rest of the Church over the cover up: blame individual bishops, and do not mention canon law or the Vatican.
That strategy was followed by the Victorian Church in its 147 page submission, Facing the Truth, to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry in which it made no mention of the imposition of the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse allegations or the serious deficiencies in the canonical disciplinary system, and bishops in evidence blamed their predecessors for the cover up. The TJHC in its 207 page submission of September 2014 to the Royal Commission followed the same line. The TJHC CEO, Francis Sullivan, described the submission as “the most comprehensive document ever produced by the Church dealing with child sexual abuse…a warts-and-all history, going back many decades.” But the biggest warts of all, the pontifical secret and the inadequacy of the Church’s disciplinary system are never mentioned.
The TJHC has just published its December 2014 Activity Report, and there are some indications that the Church may wish to avoid the thousand cuts. The report received instant media attention for the concession that celibacy in some circumstances may have contributed to the sexual abuse of children. Much more significant are the “emerging issues” the report identifies.
The report acknowledges that the culture of clericalism explains why “historically, leaders seem to have responded virtually identically to complaints of child sexual abuse” and that they “seemed to turn a blind eye either instinctively or deliberately to the abuse…protecting the institution rather than caring for the child” and that “this was and is inexcusable”. And then we read this:
“• There needs to be greater clarity around the role of the Vatican and its involvement with the way in which Church authorities in Australia responded to abuse allegations.”
The Australian Church has finally realised that it cannot avoid the issue anymore, perhaps after watching the Commission in the Nestor case questioning the canon lawyer, Sr Moya Hanlen about the pontifical secret. The Commission’s terms of reference require it to look into “systemic issues”, and there is nothing more systemic than law. The Report further states:
“• There needs to be a proper understanding of the relationship between criminal law and canon law.”
The uniform culture of secrecy over child sex abuse was underpinned and deepened by the pontifical secret imposed on all allegations and information received by the Church about it. The situation improved a little in 2010 when the Vatican extended to the rest of the world the concession it had given to the American bishops in 2002: reporting is permitted where there is a civil law requiring it. However, there are many jurisdictions in the world, including most Australian States that do not have comprehensive reporting laws. The pontifical secret still prevents a bishop in those places reporting many of these crimes to the police unless he walks into the priest’s bedroom and finds him in flagrante delicto with a child.
“• Child safety and protection must be embedded in the culture of the Church. Protocols and procedures must be driven and reinforced by Church leaders.”
Law and culture are intimately entwined. This applies as much to canon law as to civil law. According to one of the Church’s foremost intellectuals, Cardinal Francis George, a culture will never change unless the law that embodies it changes. Local Church protocols that conflict with canon law are not going to change the culture, and are seriously defective, as Professor Parkinson has told the Church several times. The pontifical secret over these crimes has to be abandoned, and mandatory reporting in all cases under canon law must be imposed, something that has been demanded twice now by the United Nations Committees on the Rights of the Child and on Torture, and twice rejected by the Vatican.
Then we find this statement:
“• There is a lack of understanding about the Church’s approach to the dismissal of priests and others within the Church who have been convicted of a child sexual abuse offence. This includes concerns about people found guilty of abuse remaining in the priesthood or religious order and seemingly being supported by the Church.”
If there is a “lack of understanding” by the general public about these matters, it is not helped by claims put forward even by Pope Francis himself that the Church applies “zero tolerance” to child sexual abuse. The figures produced by the Vatican to the United Nations shows that there is a 70% tolerance.
The Activity Report at least shows some hopeful signs that the Australian Church might soon have the courage to face the truth over the role of the Vatican and canon law, and put an end to this pointless strategy of trying to hide it.
Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press 2014).