Kieran Tapsell. Pope Francis Continues the Policy of Cover Up

Feb 14, 2016

In May 2014, my book, Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican Secret and Child Sexual Abuse was published. It accused six popes from 1922 onwards (Pius XI – Benedict XVI) of establishing, confirming and expanding a system of cover up of child sexual abuse by clergy through the strictest secrecy imposed by canon law over allegations and information gained by the Church in its internal inquiries. On 9 April 2015, I wrote a piece for this blog stating that it looked like Pope Francis will be the seventh pope to follow suit when he rejected the call from the United Nations Committees on the Rights of the Child and Against Torture to require mandatory reporting under canon law:

In his blog of 4 June 2014, Francis Sullivan from the Truth, Justice and Healing Council described my book as “highly controversial”. Despite the high controversy, neither the TJHC nor any other representative of the Church have challenged what I have written. The only canon lawyer, to my knowledge, who has written a review of the book, is Fr Thomas Doyle OP in the United States National Catholic Reporter on 22 April 2015, in which he described it as “the most comprehensive, insightful and accurate exposition of the canonical landscape yet to be produced.” Professor Ian Waters, at a meeting in Melbourne, criticized some aspects of the book, while emphasing that he was talking in his private capacity. I published a transcription of his talk and my response on Richard Sipe’s webpage:

Since the publication of the book, I have repeated my views about the role of canon law in the cover up in numerous articles in Pearls and Irritations, Global Pulse Magazine and in the National Catholic Reporter. No canon lawyer has challenged what I have written.

The recent announcement by the Vatican that bishops are “not necessarily” responsible for reporting allegations of child sexual abuse to the police, and that only victims or their families should decide on reporting, is not surprising, and it is misleading. Bishops are not given any option – they are forbidden to report these allegations under Art.30 of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, because the pontifical secret is imposed on them by Art 1(4) of the 1974 Instruction of Pope Paul VI, Secreta Continere. The pontifical secret is a permanent silence that even binds those who accidentally come across the information gathered in the Church’s internal inquiries. A dispensation was given in 2010 to allow reporting where there is a civil law requiring it, but very few jurisdictions have comprehensive reporting laws to cover all cases of child sexual abuse (only New South Wales and Victoria have them in Australia).

In response to the Vatican announcement, Francis Sullivan said that bishops are “morally obliged” to report information to prevent the risk of further abuse. Few would disagree with him, but the Vatican does. Bishops on ordination swear an oath to obey “all ecclesiastical laws”, not Francis Sullivan’s opinion of their moral obligations. Secreta Continere even purports to take away a bishop’s conscience – keeping the secret is his conscience.

Francis Sullivan described the Truth, Justice and Healing Council’s 207 page submission to the Royal Commission of 3 October 2013 as a “warts and all history going back many decades”. Canon law is mentioned 55 times, but there is no mention of the biggest wart of all, the pontifical secret. The submission contains a paragraph which, if appearing in a commercial document, would be in breach of the prohibition on misleading and deceptive conduct under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. It stated: “There is nothing in the 1983 Code that is in conflict with any applicable civil law obligations relating to the reporting of allegations of child sexual abuse.” The Code does not contain the whole of canon law. The secrecy provisions are not in the Code. The Council’s submission on Police and Prosecution Responses of 15 August 2015 makes no mention of the pontifical secret either.

In June 2014 an eminent Professor of Moral Theology wrote a very positive review of Potiphar’s Wife in a Catholic online magazine. It was withdrawn after a week, because, he told me, he had received some emails from canon lawyers criticizing it. I suggested to him that these canon lawyers should write a critical review of the book, and, if necessary I can respond. Nothing has appeared.

Last week, Father Hans Zollner SJ, president of the Center for Child Protection (CCP) at the Gregorian University, says cover-ups and denial are still too prevalent in the Church. He makes no mention of the role of canon law and the pontifical secret:

Cardinal Francis George, one of the Church’s foremost intellectuals, said in a 2003 article in the Ave Maria Law Review that if you want to get rid of a culture, you first have to get rid of the law that embodies it. So long as the pontifical secret applies to allegations of child sexual abuse of clergy, the cover up will continue. In Potiphar’s Wife, I explained the theological reasons for Church spokesmen being reluctant to acknowledge the most significant factor in the cover up. Unless they do, the problem will never go away

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


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