Kieran Tapsell: The Holy See’s Newly Found Sensitivity to National Sovereignty

Oct 8, 2014


In January 2014 the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child criticized the Holy See for the secrecy imposed by canon law over allegations of sexual crimes against children by clergy. It demanded mandatory reporting to the civil authorities in all cases, and not just where there were civil laws requiring reporting. On 22 May 2014, the Committee against Torture repeated that demand.

The Holy See’s response of 26 September 2014 criticized the Committee for overlooking the distinctions between the Holy See, the Vatican City State and the universal Catholic Church, stating that in signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it only had responsibility for the children resident in the 44 hectares of the Vatican City.

On 27 May 2013, Cardinal Pell said that he had been assured by a “senior Vatican official” that all its documents would be made available to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. On 12 June 2014, Justice McLellan, the Commission’s Chair said that the Vatican refused to produce all its documents relating to canonical proceedings against Australian priests, because, as a sovereign State, internal deliberations relating to its “judicial and administrative proceedings” were confidential.

These Australian priests were not being disciplined because they were citizens of the Vatican City State, or because they had been abusing the children of the Swiss Guards. They were being tried because canon law applies to adherents to the Catholic faith everywhere.

On the issue of mandatory reporting, the Holy See’s response asserted that it had no capacity or obligation to impose principles under the Convention “upon the local Catholic churches and institutions present on the territory of other States and whose activities abide with national laws.” Attempting to implement them worldwide “could constitute a violation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of States.” When it suits, the Holy See relies on the immunity of the Vatican City State to avoid producing documents relating to canonical proceedings against priests for crimes that have nothing to do with the Vatican City as an independent State. To avoid mandatory reporting, it asserts that bishops are like medieval princelings, and the Vatican is powerless to instruct them to report – something that is permitted and encouraged everywhere even if it is not obligatory.

The Church’s new found sensitivity to State sovereignty is in contrast to its using canon law since 1922 to cover up clergy sexual abuse of children everywhere in the world through the imposition of the pontifical secret over all such allegations.

On 31 January 1997, the Congregation for the Clergy told the Irish bishops that it had “serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature” about their proposals for mandatory reporting to the police. At that time, Irish law made it a criminal offence to conceal sexual assaults on children. On 14 July 2011, after this letter became public, the Irish Foreign Minister called in the Papal Nuncio, and handed him a note stating that it was unacceptable that the Vatican had interfered in Irish affairs and to “have priests believe they could in conscience evade their responsibilities under Irish law.”

On 8 September 2001, Cardinal Castrillon, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy congratulated Bishop Pican for not reporting a serial paedophile priest to the police contrary to French law. Pican was given a three month suspended sentence. In his letter, Castrillon stated that bishops should be prepared to go to prison rather than report priests to the police. He also said he would be sending a copy of his letter to all the bishops of the world telling them how to behave: don’t report clergy sex crimes to the police, and go to jail if need be.

On 16 May 2002, Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, appointed in 2013 by Pope Francis to reform the Roman Curia, stated that he would prefer to go to jail than to “harm” one of his priests by reporting him to the police for sexually abusing children. In other words, he would disobey any civil law on reporting, as canon law demanded.

In 2002, the American bishops asked the Vatican to change canon law because half the American States had mandatory reporting laws. Bishops would be going to jail. Cardinal Re told them that their proposals could not be reconciled with canon law. After a meeting at the Vatican, a compromise was reached: reporting was allowed only where the civil law required it. The instruction to obey civil laws on reporting was extended to the whole Church in 2010, but the pontifical secret still prevents reporting where there are no such civil laws. The Holy See is more concerned about bishops going to jail than the welfare of children.

Canon 22 of the Code of Canon Law requires Catholics to obey canon law where it conflicts with civil law. Bishops are required to swear an oath to obey canon law. They swear no oaths to obey civil law. The Italian Catholic Bishops Conference in 2012 and 2014 announced that its members will not be reporting any allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, because there is no such requirement under Italian law. Their attitude is consistent with canon law as it currently stands.

The Holy See’s newly found sensitivity to State sovereignty contrasts with the pontifical secret that is still imposed for clergy sexual abuse in countries where there is no requirement to report under the civil law. Mandatory reporting under canon law would only infringe State sovereignty if there were countries which forbade such reporting. None exist. The only inference that can be drawn from the Holy See’s response to the United Nations is that it fully intends to continue the cover up of child sexual abuse in those countries that have no or inadequate reporting laws.

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

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