The Vatican has two hats. It is the mini-State of 44 hectares in Rome, and it is the “Holy See”, the governing body of the Catholic Church. When it suits, it puts on one hat and hides the other. At the Murphy Commission in Ireland it relied on its status as a foreign country in refusing to hand over documents relevant to the Commission’s investigation of child sexual abuse.
The recent response of the Church to the UN investigating committee on child abuse is another example. Fr. Frederico Lombardi SJ said that the Holy See would not be responding to the committee because: “When individual institutions of national churches are implicated, that does not regard the competence of the Holy See, but rather the laws of the countries concerned…..The competence of the Holy See is at the level of the Holy See”. In other words, the Holy See is only responsible for sexual abuse within the 44 hectares of the Vatican City, but not elsewhere.
That statement ignores the effect of canon law. Canon 22 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law provides that, for Catholics, canon law has priority over civil law wherever there is a conflict. Further, canon law requires all those taking on positions in the Church hierarchy, to swear that they will obey canon law. Like the rules of any other private organisation, canon law has no status within the State. It cannot exempt residents within the State from complying with the civil law. But it can require them to break it.
The Vatican City has its own civil laws like every other State, and as an independent State it has no say in the laws of other independent States, but as the “Holy See” it claims the right to control compliance with civil law in those States, especially of bishops. This is precisely what it did from 1922 until 2010 with child sex abuse allegations against clergy. In 1922, Pope Pius XI issued Crimen Sollicitationis, imposing the Church’s top secret classification, with no exceptions for reporting to the police, on any information about clergy sex abuse obtained through the Church’s internal investigations. This secrecy was confirmed by Pope John XXIII in 1962, by Pope Paul VI in 1974, by Pope John Paul II in 2001 and by Benedict XVI in 2010. It formed the framework for the cover up.
On 31 January 1997, Cardinal Castrillon, the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Clergy told the Irish bishops that their proposals to have mandatory reporting to the civil authorities of allegations of clergy sex crimes against children conflicted with canon law. Castrillon’s letter was an instruction to break the Irish civil law of misprision of felony that was in force at that time.
In 2001, Bishop Pican in France was given a suspended jail sentence for failing to report allegations about a priest paedophile. On 8 September 2001, Cardinal Castrillon wrote to Bishop Pican saying: “I congratulate you on not denouncing a priest to the civil authorities. You have acted wisely, and I am delighted to have a fellow member of the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of other bishops, would prefer to go to prison rather than denounce his priest-son.” He said he would be writing to all the bishops of the world advising them to do the same.
In February 2002, Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said: “The demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offense of paedophilia is unfounded”.
On 16 May 2002, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, one of the Cardinals now advising Pope Francis on these matters, rejected any proposal to report paedophile priests to the police: “For me it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of a pastor to that of a cop. We are totally different, and I’d be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests. I say this with great clarity. We must not forget that we are pastors, not agents of the FBI or CIA.” But not pastors, apparently, to victims.
Similar statements were made on 29 April 2002 by Archbishop Herranz, the Vatican’s chief canon lawyer, on 18 May 2002 by Fr. Ghirlanda SJ, the Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Gregorian University, on 8 June 2002 by the Belgian Cardinal Schotte, and in July 2002 by Cardinal Lehmann, the Chairman of the German Bishops Conference.
In June 2002, the American bishops asked the Vatican for approval to report allegations of sexual abuse of children to the police, irrespective of whether there was a law requiring reporting or not. In October 2002, Cardinal Re from the Congregation of Bishops told them that their proposals were difficult to reconcile with canon law. A compromise was reached. The Vatican agreed to allow reporting (but only for the United States) where there was a civil law requiring it, i.e. enough reporting to keep bishops out of jail. In 2010, the Vatican allowed that dispensation generally. Where there are no reporting laws, bishops are still prevented by canon law from reporting even if they want to. That is the situation in all Australian States, except NSW, for the vast majority of complaints.
The Vatican admitted in 2012 that it had investigated 4,000 cases of sexual abuse of children by clergy, and is now still investigating “thousands”.
It is disingenuous in the extreme for Fr Lombardi SJ to say that the Holy See only has responsibility for child sex abuse within 44 hectares in the city of Rome. The world has welcomed the first Jesuit Pope, but his spokesman is putting the Jesuitical back into the Jesuit.
Kieran Tapsell is a retired solicitor and barrister with degrees in theology and law.