Kieran Tapsell. Sexual abuse in the Church – the failure of the Vatican and Popes

Feb 13, 2014

As with so many other things on the sex abuse issue, the Holy See’s response to the findings of the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child is conspicuous for its failure to acknowledge the central issue raised by that Committee: pontifical secrecy imposed on the Church’s investigations of child sexual abuse by clergy.

The Vatican spokesman, Fr Lombardi complained that the Holy See provided ample written responses under the Convention, but the Committee did not take “adequate account of the responses, both written and oral”. Lombardi makes the gratuitous comment that the report suggests “that it was practically already written, or at least in large part blocked out before the hearing,” as if the Holy See’s responses were knock out blows to the matters raised by the Committee. He then claimed that the Committee did not understand “the Holy See’s responsibilities”. He said, “Are we dealing with an inability to understand, or an unwillingness to understand? In either case, one is entitled to amazement.”

The really amazing thing is that Lombardi does not seem to have understood that the Holy See itself had shifted its position from what he had stated on 5 December 2014, that the Holy See was only responsible for the protection of children within the 44 hectares of the Vatican City – the children of the Swiss Guards.

The Committee’s Report was blunt about that claim: “By ratifying the Convention, it (the Holy See) has committed itself to implementing the Convention not only on the territory of the Vatican City State but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.” That power comes through canon law, a subject that Lombardi avoids mentioning.

On 16 January 2014, the Holy See’s delegates in Geneva, Archbishop Tomasi and Bishop Scicluna were prepared to answer questions about the Holy See’s worldwide responsibility. They were even prepared, reluctantly, to produce some figures on how many priests had been dismissed since 2005 for child sexual abuse out of the 4,400 the Holy See had been investigating since 2001. These priests were not abusing the children of the Swiss Guards.

Lombardi then goes on to suggest that the United Nations paid more attention to “certain NGOs, the prejudices of which against the Catholic Church and the Holy See are well known.” He then criticizes the UN for “going beyond its powers” by attempting to interfere in the moral and doctrinal positions of the Catholic Church regarding contraception, abortion, and its vision of “human sexuality”.

It is a pity that the Committee gave the Church this opportunity to avoid the central issue of the Catholic Church’s governance through canon law by referring to such Church teachings, because it allowed Fr. Lombardi to deflect attention away from the most important issue of pontifical secrecy.

The Committee recommended that the Holy See review its canon law to make sure it complied with the Convention. It expressed concern that child sexual abuse was dealt with through confidential disciplinary proceedings that “have allowed the vast majority of abusers and almost all those who concealed child sexual abuse to escape judicial proceedings in States where abuses were committed.” It said that as a result of the code of silence imposed by canon law, there were very few cases of sex abuse by clergy reported to law enforcement authorities, and it pointed out that reporting to national law enforcement authorities has never been made compulsory.  It recommended the abolition of pontifical secrecy, and to establish clear rules for the reporting of all suspected cases of child sexual abuse.

At the Committee hearing on 16 January 2014, Bishop Scicluna said that canon law required bishops to follow domestic law on mandatory disclosure, but when he was pressed as to why all complaints of sexual abuse were not reported, irrespective of whether or not there was a law requiring it, Scicluna replied in effect that it was really up to the victim to report. The victims, since Pope Benedict’s extension of pontifical secrecy in 2010 now include those who “habitually lack the use of reason”.

Under canon law as it stands at the moment, pontifical secrecy still applies wherever there are no local laws requiring reporting. In Australia, only New South Wales has such a law to cover all cases of sexual abuse.  The only inference that can be drawn from the Holy See’s refusal to change canon law to allow reporting of all complaints of child sexual abuse is that it is determined to hide clerical sexual abuse wherever it can get away with it. It is only prepared to allow enough reporting to keep bishops out of jail.

We know the result of that policy from the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry: of the 607 cases of child abuse, none of them were reported directly by the Church to the police. The reason: Victoria had abolished misprision of felony in 1981, and clergy were not included in the mandatory welfare reporting laws passed in the 1990s. There was no obligation to report and canon law stipulated that there should be no reporting of any information that the Church had gathered from its internal inquiries.

At the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, Cardinal George Pell said that on the issue of sexual abuse by clergy, the Congregation of the Clergy “did not get it”. It seems that the Holy See still does not. Nor does the Church in Australia. There is no suggestion in its submission to the Royal Commission that canon law is even a problem, let alone that it should be changed.

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