KIERAN TAPSELL. Vatican Reform on Child Sexual Abuse in Disarray – Does Pope Francis get it?

Mar 3, 2017

Zero tolerance in a professional context almost invariably means dismissal, but Pope Francis’s claim that the Church has a “zero tolerance” policy is not borne out by the figures he presented to the United Nations: only one quarter of all priests found to have sexually abused children have been dismissed. That’s a 75% tolerance not zero.  

On 1 March 2017, Marie Collins, the only abuse survivor on Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, resigned because “what was happening behind closed doors was in conflict with what was said in public.”  See article in National Catholic reporter ‘Survivor explains decision to leave Vatican’s abuse commission‘.

The week before three other members of the Pontifical Commission, Sheila Hollins, Bill Kilgallon and Kathleen McCormack gave evidence in a panel to the Royal Commission, and expressed their frustration with the Vatican.

The Chair of the Royal Commission, Justice McClellan told the panel that the work they were doing was of “fundamental importance to individual countries” because the work of the Royal Commission indicates that real change in the culture and practices of the Church in Australia will only occur if “it’s coming from Rome.”

After several hours of questioning in which the panel spoke about resistance in Rome to their recommendations and its lack of resources, Justice McClellan observed: “The picture you all paint, from an outsider’s point of view, is of a world organisation which is struggling to come to terms with the safety of children and its responsibilities in that area.”

A surprising feature of the evidence from the panel was the lack of attention to the reform of canon law. An Italian professor of canon law who couldn’t speak English was appointed to the Commission but he resigned because he “couldn’t make the contribution he needed”. An American canon lawyer in Rome gave some assistance, but then had to return to the United States. There is no canon lawyer on the now 15 member Commission.

Since 1996, the Catholic Bishops Conferences of Ireland, Great Britain, the United States, and Australia have wanted mandatory reporting under canon law, but have been continually rebuffed by the Vatican. In 2002, the United States bishops put a proposal to the Vatican that included mandatory reporting, but, like the Irish in 1997, were told it did not comply with canon law. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby bishops were instructed to obey civil reporting laws, and that instruction was extended to the rest of the world in 2010. The Vatican seemed more concerned about bishops going to jail for breaching reporting laws than the protection of children who were unfortunate enough to be living in States with inadequate reporting laws.

In 2014, the United Nations Committees on the Rights of the Child and against Torture queried the Vatican’s representatives as to why the Vatican did not impose mandatory reporting under canon law. Pope Francis’ casuistic response in September 2014 was that mandatory reporting would interfere with the independence of sovereign states. Unless a country prohibits reporting child sexual abuse to the police, canon law interferes with such sovereignty as much as the rules of golf.

In February 2016, Cardinal O’Malley, the President of the Pontifical Commission stated that “even beyond these civil requirements, we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities.” This was a welcome announcement suggesting that the Commission might convince Pope Francis to change his mind about mandatory reporting. However, on 6 December 2016 the Pontifical Commission published its guidelines for national protocols on child sexual abuse. In another disconnect between public statements and what really happens, Cardinal O’Malley’s statement was not included.

When asked about mandatory reporting, Bill Kilgallon repeated the official line given by the Vatican spokesman, Fr Lombardi on 16 May 2011: the Church cannot impose mandatory reporting because some countries have repressive regimes. The irony of Lombardi’s response is that in 2010 when he announced the direction for bishops to obey civil laws on reporting there was no suggestion of an exception for repressive regimes.

Opponents of mandatory reporting in the Vatican seem to be unaware of the Church’s history. In 1842, the Holy Office under Pope Gregory XVI issued a direction that the canons that required penitents to denounce priests who solicited sex in the confessional no longer applied in the lands of “schismatics, heretics and Mohammedans”, the repressive regimes of the day. It’s really very simple. Kilgallon agreed that an exception to mandatory reporting could be made for such countries, but that was only his personal opinion.

On 22 February 2017, Br Payne from the De La Salle Brothers told the Royal Commission that Pope Francis’ rhetoric about “zero tolerance” of child sexual abuse did not match the reality imposed by canon law. Canon law requires a religious brother to receive a “canonical warning” before he can be dismissed. Br Payne said it was “a bit late” to require warnings after the abuse had occurred. The abuser has to offend again after a canonical warning has been given before he can be dismissed.

Similar problems arise with the disciplinary canons dealing with priests. Not a word has changed in Canon 1341 that requires a bishop to try and cure the priest before he is put on a canonical trial. Not a word has changed in Canon 1321, which two Vatican appeal courts interpreted as meaning that a priest cannot be dismissed for paedophilia because he is a paedophile. Not a word has come from the Vatican indicating that these canons are being interpreted differently from the past.

Zero tolerance in a professional context almost invariably means dismissal, but Pope Francis’s claim that the Church has a “zero tolerance” policy is not borne out by the figures he presented to the United Nations: only one quarter of all priests found to have sexually abused children have been dismissed. That’s a 75% tolerance not zero.

The buck for canon law stops at the popes, and Pope Francis can change it with the stroke of a pen. The lack of consistency between his rhetoric and his actions on child sexual abuse could turn out to be the major blot on his papacy. When Marie Collins resigns, and Kathleen McCormack describes her work at the Pontifical Commission as “like water on a rock, we’ve just got to keep at it,” there is not much room for optimism.

Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press 2014), and a submission to the Royal Commission, Canon Law: A Systemic Factor in Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. He gave evidence about canon law as part of a panel on 9 February 2016.


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