Kieran Tapsell. The Vatican at the UN: Who is fossilised in the Past?

May 16, 2014

The Holy See has found itself before the United Nations once again, this time in relation to the Treaty on Torture. According to Reuters, Archbishop Tomasi told critics of its sexual abuse record that it had developed model child protection policies over the last decade and that its accusers should not stay “fossilised in the past” when attitudes were different. He said that the “culture of the time” in the 1960s and 1970s viewed such offenders as people who could be treated psychologically rather than as criminals, but this was a mistake, and it is all in the past.

This is a repetition of the claim made by the Church to the Murphy Commission in Ireland and the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry that the Church, like the rest of society, has been on a “learning curve” over child sexual abuse, and that regrettably the Church was also infected with this culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Both the Murphy Commission and the Victoria Parliamentary Committee rejected the claim, but it is still being trotted out by the Australian Church to the Royal Commission and now once again by the Vatican representative at the UN.

Civil society is always on a learning curve about everything: science, human behaviour, town planning, global warming and even motor vehicle accidents. The fact that we can now fly to the moon does not mean that we had only just discovered it, and the fact that there has been considerable research on child sexual abuse over the last 50 years does not mean it was unknown and ignored before then. “Child sexual abuse” is a euphemism for raping and sexually assaulting children, which has always been severely punished by secular society, almost invariably with a jail term except where it is of a very minor nature.

The Church had the same attitude for about 1500 years until 1922. The first Church law declaring that child sexual abuse was more than just a sin punishable in the next life, but was a canonical crime punishable in this life, came out of the Council of Elvira in 306CE. For virtually its whole existence, the Church accepted that its canonical punishments of restrictions on ministry or dismissal from the priesthood were insufficient for child sexual abuse. From the 12th century onwards, there were decrees of four popes and three Church councils declaring that clerics involved in this crime were to be stripped of their status as priests, and where the crimes were serious, were to be handed over to the civil authorities to be punished in accordance with the civil law. Sometimes that involved execution.

Archbishop Tomasi suggests that the Church (like the rest of society) succumbed to some secular psychological theories of the 1960s and 1970s that thought that paedophiles could be cured. That is simply untrue. In 1904, Pope St. Pius X set up a Commission to codify canon law. That meant going through some 10,000 papal and conciliar decrees and discarding those that were no long relevant (such as those against usury) or were embarrassing (such as the 50 or so anti-Semitic papal bulls), modifying others and creating new ones into a unified code. The Commission was headed by Cardinal Gasparri and his assistant was Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII.

The Commission threw out all the decrees requiring priests who had sexually abused children to be handed over to the civil authorities. Under the 1917 Code, priests could be dismissed in “serious cases”, but there was no mention of handing them over to the civil authorities. Five years later, in 1922, Pope Pius XI issued the decree Crimen Sollicitationis that imposed the Secret of the Holy Office, a “permanent silence”, on all information obtained by the Church in its internal inquiries into the allegations. There were no exceptions for reporting to the civil authorities. Breach of the secret meant automatic excommunication from the Church, and that excommunication could only be lifted by the Pope personally. In 1974, Pope Paul VI renamed the secret of the Holy Office, the “pontifical secret”, and it still applies to all allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy.

Crimen Sollicitationis also introduced what became known as “the pastoral approach” to clergy sex abusers. A priest could only be dismissed if there seemed to be “no hope, humanly speaking, or almost no hope, of his amendment”. The 1983 Code of Canon Law went even further by extending that “pastoral approach” so that even before a priest could be put on trial, the bishop had to make an attempt to “reform” him.

This idea that the Church had somehow been contaminated by some psychological theories of the 1960s and 1970s is nonsense. The requirement to try to reform a priest before imposing the punishment of dismissal was enshrined in canon law 40 years earlier in 1922, and it is still enshrined in canon 1341. You can look it up yourself:

In order to show how much the Church had changed, Archbishop Tomasi summarised the procedural changes introduced in 2001, but he made no mention of Article 25 of the 2001 Motu Proprio, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela and Article 30 of its 2010 revised version that again imposed the permanent silence of “the pontifical secret” on all allegations and information about child sexual abuse by clergy. In 2010, the Holy See granted a dispensation to allow civil laws requiring reporting to be obeyed – that is just enough to keep bishops out of jail. In Australia, only NSW has such laws. In every other State, there is no requirement to report possibly as much as 99% of all cases of child sexual abuse, and in those cases the pontifical secret still applies. The Church is still fossilized in the past, and will continue to be so for as long as it imposes the pontifical secret on allegations of child sex abuse of its clergy, and refuses to report such allegations the police for investigation – irrespective of whether there is a reporting law or not. The cover up continues, and so does the spin.

Kieran Tapsell’s book: Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse will be launched at 4.30pm on 27 May 2014 at the Auditorium, 99 Albert Road, Strathfield.

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