Kieran Tapsell: The Inquisition of the Catholic Church at the United Nations.

Jan 23, 2014

The Vatican’s former Chief Prosecutor, Bishop Charles Scicluna, found himself before the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the Child in Geneva on 16 January 2014. He joked that in the past his predecessors may have been on the other side of the table as the “Grand Inquisitor”.

The Church signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, but had failed to provide reports under the Convention until 2012, arguing that its only responsibility for child abuse was within the 44 hectares of the Vatican City. It was a Jesuitical response that it continued to press as recently as 5 December 2013: see   However, it seems that over Christmas, the Vatican had a change of heart, and was prepared to front the UN Committee to answer questions about its role in child abuse matters as a result of the Church’s canon law.

Scicluna stated that when allegations of sexual abuse of children are made, bishops have to carry out an investigation and refer it on to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – he was referring to Canon 1717 and Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (2001). He said that this procedure does not override the “legitimate rights of the sovereign State”. He referred to guidelines issued in 2010 and again in 2011 which required the local church to “follow domestic law on mandatory disclosure”. What he did not tell them was that until 2010, pontifical secrecy imposed by canon law did require bishops to break domestic laws on disclosure, and that canon law was the most significant factor in the world wide cover up of child sex abuse by the Church since Pope Pius XI issued his decree, Crimen Sollicitationis in 1922.

What he also did not tell them was that most complaints about sexual abuse are made after the victim has reached adulthood – children take a long time to come to terms with it. If the figures given at the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry for “historic abuse” are any indication generally, that represents more than 99% of all cases. What Scicluna also did not tell the Committee was that very few countries have mandatory disclosure laws for historic abuse – only New South Wales amongst the Australian States has it. And in many jurisdictions (for example, Victoria) the mandatory welfare reporting laws about children “at risk” do not apply to clergy. What he also did not tell them was that pontifical secrecy still applies to internal Church investigations where there are no domestic disclosure laws.

Two of the UN Committee members were a wake up to this, and repeatedly asked Scicluna why the guidelines did not provide that in “all cases these crimes should be reported.” His response was that “Education is the key to empowerment. Every local church has a moral duty to instruct people about their rights.” In other words, it is up to the victim to report the abuse, not the Church. This was a parroted response of what the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Castrillon, had written to the Irish bishops in January 1997 and November 1998. Cardinal Castrillon was not the only senior Church official to insist on this: see

In Australia, Francis Sullivan, the CEO of the Truth Justice and Healing Council that represents the Church at the Royal Commission said much the same. On 3 April 2013, on the Australian ABC’s “7.30 Report” he was asked what steps the Church should take if one of its teachers reported to Church authorities that he suspected that a priest was sexually abusing children at their school. He said it was up to the teacher to report it, and not the Church authorities.  This is also the answer that is enshrined in the Melbourne Response: it is not up to the Church to report; it is up to the victim – and the most likely reason that the Melbourne Response had Vatican support and Towards Healing did not.

The absurdity of the Vatican policy is illustrated by the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy who abused as many as 200 deaf mute boys in the care of a church school for the deaf. Does the Church really expect deaf mute boys to be running off to the police station with sign language to report such abuse?

It is even more absurd when you consider that one of the “reforms” of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 was to extend pontifical secrecy to cases of priests having sex with “those who habitually lack the use of reason”. Are they going to be educated by Bishop Scicluna and his fellow bishops about their rights so that they can be “empowered” to go off to the police?

The State of Victoria is a very good example of the practical outcome of the Church’s canon law as stated by Bishop Scicluna. Between 1996 and 2012, there were 611 complaints of sexual abuse involving clergy and religious. The Victorian Parliamentary Committee’s report, “Betrayal of Trust” found: “No representatives of the Catholic Church directly reported the criminal conduct of its members to the police. The Committee found that there is simply no justification for this position.” There was no justification, but there was a reason – Victoria had no such reporting laws: misprision of felony had been abolished in 1981; the mandatory welfare reporting laws did not apply to clergy, and canon law prohibited disclosure of such allegations to the police.

The same thing will continue to happen all over the world where there are no such domestic laws: England, Germany and Austria, most parts of Canada and the United States, New Zealand, and many other countries – and every State of Australia other than NSW.

Pope Francis had an opportunity to announce at the UN the end of pontifical secrecy for clergy sex crimes. It did not happen. The cover up of clergy sex abuse of children will continue wherever the Church can get away with it.

As Thomas C. Fox, the publisher of the National Catholic Reporter wrote on 21 January 2014, “Despite Pope Francis’ heartfelt expressions of lament over priest sex abuse last week, the Geneva hearing suggests to date he does not understand the full magnitude of the related sex abuse issues, or, if he does, is yet unwilling or incapable of responding to it.”

The Church is still insisting on pontifical secrecy where there are no legal obligations to report, and pontifical secrecy is the cornerstone of the cover up.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired solicitor and barrister with degrees in theology and law.

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