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Is a sex abuse cover up concealed in canon law?

HONG KONG (SE): In its response to the Vatican presentation on its track record in implementing the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN hearing committee accused it of covering up cases of clerical child abuse.

However in a report published on UCA News, the author of a soon-to-be-published book, Potiphar’s Wife: The Secret of the Holy Office and Child Sexual Abuse, Keiran Tapsell, says that he believes that what is really surprising is that what is being termed a cover up is structured and built into policy.

The Australian lawyer and theologian points out that since the UN findings were released on February 5 world headlines have screamed scathing condemnation of the Vatican testimony. “The language was unstintingly blunt,” he comments.

He isolates one sentence in the response from the UN as particularly damning. “The Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices that have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

While he says the vehemence of the condemnation seems a bit surprising, he points out that what may be really surprising is that at the bottom of this cover up may be a papal decree forbidding bishops from reporting priests to the secular authorities.

The decree in question dates back to 1922 and is a follow up to a radical change in practice that was affected by the Code of Canon Law, which came into effect in 1917.

Tapsell points out that the change in canon law represented a direct reversal of what had become a practice of handing priests found guilty of child sex abuse by Church courts to civil authorities for punishment under secular law.

“Since the fourth century, to varying degrees, clergy had the legal right not to be tried in the civil courts for their crimes, but in Church canonical courts. However, that right had virtually disappeared by the 19th century,” he notes.

Tapsell calls this creating a de facto privilege for the clergy. 

“If the state courts did not know about these crimes, there would be no state trial and the matter could be treated as a canonical crime,” he says.

“Relatively speaking, it is something of an innovation. For not far short of a millennium, canon law used to decree that after degradation—the Church equivalent of a dishonourable discharge—priests found guilty of child sex abuse were to be handed over to the civil authorities.”

He says this was strengthened by decrees from Pope Innocent III (1198), Pope Pius V (1566 and 1568), the Fourth and Fifth Lateran Councils (1215 and 1514) and the Council of Trent (1551).

But with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a sweeping reform that discarded canons that were regarded as no longer relevant and kept or modified those that were, the canon ordering priest child sex-abusers to be handed over to the civil courts was left out.

Tapsell says that paved the way for the 1922 decree of Pope Pius XI, known as Crimen Sollicitationis, which put an end to the practice of handing priests over to the state and imposed secrecy obligations on any allegations of child sex abuse against clergy.

The post-World War I period was a turbulent time for the Church in Europe, with the rise of extremely anti-clerical regimes in many countries. 

In some places there was open persecution of the clergy and Pope Pius’ action may well have been made in response to that situation.

However, Crimen Sollicitationis has never been officially published, nor has it ever been rescinded, despite requests from bishops’ conferences in the United States of America (US), Ireland, Britain and Australia for an exemption in the 1990s.

While the Vatican made a concession to the US in 2002 and to the rest of the world in 2010, allowing reporting where local civil law requires it, there are still few legal systems or jurisdictions in the world which do and, in many countries, there are no civil laws requiring the vast majority of sex abuse allegations to be reported.

When Bishop Charles Scicluna appeared for the Holy See in January before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, he said that the Church should work to empower victims to report abuse themselves.

Bishop Scicluna told the UN committee in early January, “Education is the key to empowerment. Every local Church has a moral duty to instruct people about their rights.” In other words, the Church’s responsibility is to empower the victims to report themselves.

In Ireland in 2010, after the Murphy Commission found there had been a widespread cover-up of child sex abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, Pope Benedict wrote a Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland.

The Murphy Commission had said harsh things about canon law and the requirements of secrecy, finding, “The structures and rules of the Catholic Church facilitated (cover-up).”

However, Pope Benedict attacked the bishops for failing to use the long established norms of canon law to deal with these priests.

While this may have been so, Tapsell says that the pope’s letter wrote the script for a second cover-up—blame the bishops—and apologise to the victims.

In around 2006, media rumblings prompted a Vatican spokesperson to state that pontifical secrecy did not prevent reporting to the police and only applied to internal Church procedures.

Tapsell says that this is true, but virtually all the information that the Church had about clergy sexual abuse came from its internal procedures.

This has taken on a new importance recently, as the Church in Australia has been under government spotlight for its handling of sex abuse cases.

At a state government hearing in Melbourne, Tapsell says that the bishops basically blamed their predecessors, but adds, “Misguided as it was, (they) followed canon law.”

The Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which speaks on behalf of the Church at the current Federal Royal Commission, said it had been kept in the dark for too long about child sex abuse in the Church.


However, Tapsell notes that what it did not mention is that the silence is backed up by canon law.

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