Kieran Tapsell: The Holy See, Torture and the UN

Dec 2, 2014

On 26 September 2014, the Holy See rejected the demand of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for it to impose through canon law mandatory reporting of all allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy. The Holy See said its only responsibility under the Convention was for the handful of children who reside within the 44 hectares of the Vatican City. This is despite the fact that since 2001, it supervised or conducted disciplinary hearings against 4,000 clerics accused of child sexual abuse which had no connection whatsoever with the Vatican City. The Holy See further said that to impose mandatory reporting under canon law would be to interfere in the sovereignty of other nations – a surprising objection since it does not regard canon law’s imposition of the pontifical secret on all allegations and information about child sexual abuse amongst clergy everywhere in the world as interference in national sovereignty.

Now the Holy See’s behaviour has become an issue in relation to Australia’s response to the United Nations Committee on Torture.  In May 2013, Cardinal Pell told the Victorian Parliamentary Committee that he had been assured by a “senior Vatican official” that all documents relating to clerical sexual abuse of children in Australia would be made available to Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.  When it came to the crunch, the Holy See refused to honour that assurance, despite handing over some documents. In its Concluding Observations on Australia’s Fourth and Fifth Periodic Reports on the Convention against Torture, the Committee expressed concern that the Holy See had told the Royal Commission that it was “unreasonable” for the Commission to request all documents that include “internal working documents of a sovereign State”.

Once again, the Holy See has resorted to this sophistry that disciplinary proceedings being managed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under canon law had some connection with the Vatican City as a sovereign state.

The UN Committee acknowledged that the Royal Commission was independent of the Australian Government but reminded the latter that it had obligations under the convention to make sure that “all reports of breaches of the Convention are promptly and impartially investigated and that assistance is sought from other State parties where necessary to conduct such investigations.” The Australian Government can support the request by the Royal Commission, but cannot force the Holy See to comply.

There are very sound moral reasons for the Holy See to comply. Society has as much interest in not having sex abusers amongst priests, ministers, imams and rabbis as it has in not having lawyer thieves and drug dealing doctors. Disciplinary proceedings against lawyers and doctors are open to public scrutiny. The Church’s dealings with its priests are not, because of the pontifical secret imposed by canon law.  The Royal Commission has the power to subpoena all documents held in Australia concerning such disciplinary matters, and it would reject any claim for privilege or secrecy based on canon law. But there is no guarantee that the Australian Church has copies of all relevant documents that the Holy See has in its possession.

In 2007, the Holy See engaged Archbishop Chaput to investigate complaints about Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba.  Chaput prepared a report which he sent to Rome. When Morris asked to see a copy, Chaput replied that he did not have a copy anymore because he had sent the report in electronic and hard copy form to the Vatican, and then destroyed his own, that being “what he was supposed to do”. In its Cloyne Report, the Murphy Commission in Ireland found that Bishop Magee, the former private secretary to three popes, kept two files about allegations of sexual abuse by priests. One was in case a subpoena or search warrant was issued by the State and the other was for the Vatican. One of Magee’s priests, Fr Caden admitted to sexually abusing children. Magee had the admission on the file to go to the Vatican, but not on the file to be given to the police. Bishop Magee had forgotten to destroy his “Vatican” file, and it came into the hands of the Murphy Commission.

Even assuming that every relevant document in the possession of the Holy See is also held by bishops in Australia, one would have thought that given the practice in the Morris and Magee cases, it was in the interests of the Holy See to dispel such suspicions by producing everything it had. This resort to casuistry by claiming that such documents are protected by sovereign immunity only creates more suspicion that the Holy See has things to hide, and is not serious about being frank with the Royal Commission. In his 2010 Pastoral Letter to the people of Ireland, Pope Benedict encouraged the Irish bishops to “cooperate” with civil authorities over sexual abuse, but when it came to producing relevant documents to the Murphy Commission, the Holy See refused to follow the same advice.

The Royal Commission’s terms of reference require it to investigate “systemic issues” involving institutional responses to child sexual abuse, and there is nothing more systemic than law. Canon law determines how priests are to be disciplined in Australia, and the Commission has already dealt with the Nestor case where canon law was shown to be seriously inadequate. If the Catholic Church wants to convince the world that “everything has changed” then it is indeed surprising that the Holy See is reluctant to hand over all its files in cases involving Australia and Australians to the Royal Commission. We seem to be witnessing a modern rendition of the famous line of the Sicilian aristocrat in Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard: “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

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




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