Rolf Harris, aged 84, was found guilty of sexual assaults on children in the long distant past, and was sentenced to 5 years jail. The judge took into account his age in determining the sentence. Many people still thought it was inadequate, and there is talk of an appeal by the Attorney General to increase the term.
The policy widely accepted in society and reflected by the courts is that the sexual abuse of children should be punished severely, even if it occurred a long time ago, and the convicted man is in his eighties. That view seems to have little traction in the Vatican. The harshest punishment that the Vatican can impose on a priest under canon law is his dismissal from the priesthood, whose secular equivalent would be striking off the rolls or register for a lawyer or doctor.
Fr Lawrence Murphy had sexually assaulted as many as 200 deaf mute boys between 1950 and 1974 when he was in charge of St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. After complaints from victims that Murphy was still a priest, Archbishop Weakland in 1998 commenced canonical proceedings to have him dismissed. Archbishop Bertone from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith effectively told Weakland to discontinue the proceedings, because Murphy was “old” at 73, and had suffered a stroke, although he was not seriously incapacitated.
One of the most serious sexual abusers in the history of the Church was Fr Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a brilliant if dubious fund raiser. Maciel made generous donations to the Vatican from the Legion’s annual budget of $650m. In 1998 eight former members of the Legion lodged complaints against him to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Maciel had the support of Cardinal Sodano who pressured Ratzinger not to prosecute him. Ratzinger told Mexican Bishop Carlos Talavera the matter was “very delicate” and that a case could not be mounted against Maciel because of his contributions to the Church, and he was well loved by Pope John Paul II. Yet, even when Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI, did take action in 2006, Maciel, then 85, was not handed over to the police, nor was he dismissed from the priesthood. He was merely suspended, and asked to go to a monastery to lead “a reserved life of prayer and penance”. His “monastery” was a house with a pool in a gated community in Jacksonville, Florida, bought for him by the Legion of Christ which he founded. He died there in 2008, aged 87.
In 2006, when Bishop Jarrett of Lismore reported a serial sex abuser, Fr Paul Brown, to the Vatican as required under the 2001 canonical procedures, he received a reply from the Vatican two years later imposing a punishment of saying Mass for the victims every Friday and living a life of “prayer and penance” in a comfortable presbytery. He too, like Murphy, was “old”, at 73.
Fr Desmond Gannon had been sentenced five times in Victoria (in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2003 and 2009) for sexual crimes against children. Archbishop Hart applied to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to have him dismissed, The Vatican declined to dismiss him because of his ‘extreme age’ – he was then 82, two years younger than Rolf Harris. In 2012 Hart wrote to the Vatican, saying that the failure to dismiss Gannon would be seen as ‘inadequate and a cause of scandal for the faithful’. The Vatican was unmoved.
In 2010, the Vatican published its “Guide to Understanding Basic Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith Procedures”, for the benefit of “lay persons and non-canonists.” It provides that if the priest “has admitted to his crimes and accepted to live a life of prayer and penance”, the bishop can issue a decree prohibiting or restricting the priest’s public ministry. If he violates those conditions he may be dismissed. It is not known whether the Vatican monitors the prayer and penance.
On 19 March 2014, Pope Francis noted that Pope Benedict had supported “zero tolerance” for clergy who sexually abused children, and on 27 May 2014, he promised that he would apply the same “zero tolerance” standard.
On 6 May 2014, the Vatican envoy to the United Nations, Archbishop Tomasi, told the Committee against Torture that more than 3,400 credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors had been referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2004. As a result, 848 clerics had been dismissed and other disciplinary measures had been applied in more than 2,500 other cases. Presumably, the latter were dealt with by the “prayer and penance” punishment outlined in the Guide.
Whatever may be said about Pope Francis’s future intentions, his statement that Pope Benedict supported “zero tolerance” is pure spin. The Church’s own figures establish that there was a 70% tolerance during Benedict’s pontificate, not zero. Other professions, such as the law, have for many decades adopted zero tolerance for certain kinds of professional misconduct. Solicitors who steal from trust accounts are struck off the rolls, and at least in my experience, are never allowed back on. That’s zero tolerance. So is the sentence handed down to Rolf Harris. Is Pope Francis going to issue a new “Guide” for “lay persons and non-canonists”, reflecting real zero tolerance for sexual abuse by clergy, or is his latest promise just more spin?
Kieran Tapsell is a retired lawyer with degrees in theology and law and is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (2014 ATF Press).