Kieran Tapsell: The Seventh Pope to Require the Cover up of Child Sexual Abuse?

Apr 9, 2015

In 2010, Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, announced that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would instruct bishops to report allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children where there was a local civil law requiring it. The terms of the dispensation were limited, so that if there were no reporting laws, the pontifical secret applied, and prevented any reporting of such allegations. The President of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, Cardinal Bagnasco, announced in 2012 and 2014 that Italian bishops would not report allegations of clergy sexual abuse to the police on the ground that Italian law did not require it. On 25 March 2015, the spokesman for the Polish Catholic Bishops Conference, Fr Jozef Kloch stated that as a matter of policy Polish bishops would not report allegations of child sex abuse by clergy to the civil authorities.  It was up to the victims to report, he said. These statements are consistent with the pontifical secret and the limitations imposed by the 2010 dispensation.

However, Fr Lombardi’s 2010 announcement created uncertainty as to the extent of reporting allowed by canon law even where there are civil reporting laws. He said: “This means that in the practice suggested by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it is necessary to comply with the requirements of law in the various countries, and to do so in good time, not during or subsequent to the canonical trial.”  The “trial” in the canonical and continental systems of law includes the investigation, and in the case of canon law, this means the “preliminary investigation” under Canon 1717.

Fr Lombardi’s words were unclear as to whether he was merely giving advice to bishops about the best time to report, or that this was a requirement of the dispensation itself. It is a matter of some importance. If it is a requirement of the dispensation, and a single allegation of sexual abuse is made against a priest (and that reported to the police), but the canonical investigation reveals another twenty, those twenty are covered by the pontifical secret and cannot be reported.

A recent announcement from the Vatican suggests that Fr Lombardi was not merely giving advice, but specifying restrictions on the dispensation itself. Global Pulse, the online Catholic magazine has this report:

“An Italian news agency reported this week that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the office in charge of abuse cases, has refused to cooperate with civil authorities in Italy concerning a well-known priest that Benedict XVI dismissed from the clerical state in 2012. ‘The procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are of a canonical nature and, as such, are not an object for the exchange of information with civil magistrates,’ a Vatican source told the Agenzia Giornalistica Italiana (AGI). Benedict ‘defrocked’ Fr Mauro Inzoli, a popular priest of the Communion and Liberation (CL) movement, for abusing dozens of children over a ten-year period. But Pope Francis re-instated him last summer after he appealed the decision and then sentenced the priest to a ‘life of prayer and penance’”.

The Italian Magistrates were seeking access to documents “subsequent to the canonical trial” at which Fr Inzoli was initially dismissed.  The Vatican’s rejection of their demand seems to confirm that once canonical proceedings commence, the pontifical secret applies, and any disclosure of information obtained in those proceedings is strictly forbidden.

In his 2010 Pastoral Letter to the people of Ireland Pope Benedict told the Irish bishops to “cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence.”  This latest Vatican announcement indicates it places strict limits on that cooperation.  Dr Rodger Austin, a canon lawyer, told the Cunneen Inquiry that if a civil court required information that had been given to a canonical trial, a dispensation would need to be obtained. He did not specify who could give the dispensation, but under canon law, it has to come from the Vatican. The Inzoli case indicates that such a dispensation is unlikely to be given.

In January and May, 2014, the United Nations Committees on the Rights of the Child and on Torture, requested the Holy See to abolish the pontifical secret for allegations of child sexual abuse, and to order through canon law mandatory reporting to the civil authority. In September 2014, Pope Francis rejected that request on the grounds that mandatory reporting would interfere with the sovereignty of independent States: see .  Mandatory reporting would only interfere with such sovereignty if a State law prohibited reporting of clergy sex abuse of children to the police. No such State exists. But the Vatican announcement in the Inzoli case illustrates its very real intention to interfere in the sovereignty of independent States by prohibiting reporting once canonical proceedings start, even when the civil law requires reporting.

The Vatican decision in the Inzoli case confirms that the cover up of child sexual abuse will continue even in those States that have comprehensive reporting laws. If the State does not know about these new allegations after a canonical investigation starts, there will be no State trials in respect of them. The de facto privilege of clergy by the use of secrecy, rendering clergy immune to civil prosecution for child sex abuse, was set up in 1922 by Pope Pius XI, and was continued and expanded by five of his successors. Regrettably, it seems that Pope Francis gives every indication of adding himself to the list as the seventh pope.

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

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