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Protecting paedophile priests goes back to canon law

Date

Richard Ackland

Gave evidence to the special commission in Newcastle: Father Brian Lucas.

Gave evidence to the special commission in Newcastle: Father Brian Lucas. Photo: Darren Pateman

How is it that the Catholic Church has not only harboured so many paedophile priests but strenuously covered up their criminal activities? 

This conspiracy exists not only in Australia but in other countries where the Catholic Church functions. We've seen the same pattern in Ireland, Britain and the US. It is a cover-up on a global scale. 

With the work of the royal commission into child sexual abuse and the Newcastle Maitland special commission we've been hearing, almost on a daily basis, of senior priests protecting the worst sort of offenders, failing to report them to the civil authorities, moving them around when things got hot, and generally being part of what can only be described as a large-scale criminal protection racket. 

Studied for the priesthood: Kieran Tapsell.

Studied for the priesthood: Kieran Tapsell.

In his evidence to the special commission in Newcastle, Father Brian Lucas said that the obligation to report a serious crime depended on the wishes of the victim. The other rabbit hole of escape was that the secrecy of the confessional overcomes obligations to the criminal law. 

This week the Marist Brothers in Canberra have been the focus of the McClellan royal commission, and the story is the same – protection of clergy against whom allegations of paedophilia have been made and giving victims the most incredible run-around. 

But why? Why has the church taken that course of action instead of expelling these creepy "groomers and touchers" and sending them off to the police with a file note listing all the complaints against them? 

It is puzzling, until you read Kieran Tapsell's just published book, Potiphar's Wife. 

Tapsell is a retired Sydney lawyer who also studied for the priesthood, with canon law as his special interest – and it is here that he locates the problem. 

You have to go back to the book of Genesis to work out who Potiphar and his wife were. Mrs Potiphar must have been the first recorded person to have accused her victim of rape, after unsuccessfully trying to seduce him. 

It is not as though the civil law has had a relaxed attitude to the sexual abuse of children, but current church law does. 

Yet, it wasn't always so. For 1500 years the Catholic Church stripped abusing priests of their office and status and handed them over to the state for punishment.

It was not until 1904 that Pope Pius X created a commission with the job of unifying the canon law code and tossing out unwanted bits. One of the discarded decrees was the one requiring priests who abused children to be sacked and prosecuted. 

In 1922, Pope Pius XI issued Crimen Sollicitationis, which imposed the secret of the holy office. Priests who were meddlesome in the worst ways imaginable were to be kept under wraps. 

This was subsequently confirmed in 1962. In 1974 the "secret of the holy office" was rebadged as the "pontifical secret". 

It was confirmed again in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Later Benedict XVI (the German pope) conveniently declared the secrecy provisions extended to allegations of priests having sex with intellectually disabled people. 

By 2010, the scandals of paedophile priests were well and truly on the front page. The heat was on, so the Vatican got busy and came up with a harmless amendment to the established code. A restricted form of reporting to the civil authorities was permitted, but only where the civil law required it. 

Oddly enough, all Australian states have mandatory reporting for children at risk under 18 years of age. Only NSW has mandatory reporting for all abuse, including historic abuse. 

The principle was that the morality of the community was by now well enough entrenched so that serious crimes would be reported anyway, and there no longer needed to be a broad legislative requirement to do so. 

Tapsell says: "The leaders of the church did not share that moral sense when it came to priests sexually assaulting children." 

The response of the Vatican to the report of the Irish commission of investigation into priestly abuse of children, headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy, was instructive. 

Benedict XVI had given the Dublin report "careful study" and was "deeply disturbed" by its contents. 

Three months later, the Pope released a pastoral letter in which he laid the blame at the feet of the Irish bishops for not applying "the long established norms of canon law". 

Yet it was those very norms of secrecy that the bishops had sworn to uphold to protect abusing priests. 

Certainly, there was no mention in the pastoral letter that the canon law was largely responsible for protecting these abusers. Nor was there any suggestion that this particular part of the code would be abolished, including the bit that makes it almost impossible to dismiss a priest without the priest's consent. 

Hence, Father Brian Lucas' day job, as he unfortunately expressed it, of "seducing" priests to resign. 

Twitter: @JustinianNews

18 comments so far

  • As a leader within my Church, I am appalled by this behaviour. Part of my role, is to ensure that all aspects of child protection legislation are enforced to the full degree. NOTHING, from any imaginable source, can stand in the way of this happening. In conversations with my minister, he has made it clear that our role is to report any suspect behaviour to the appropriate authorities immediately, no matter who is involved.
    The Catholic Church must stop hiding behind man made rules that have no foundation in Scripture. The sanctity of the confessional is not biblical, in fact neither is the confessional itself. Priests are mere men, no better or worse than the rest of us. if they fail, they must be brought to task.

    Commenter
    Never Again
    Location
    Here
    Date and time
    June 13, 2014, 7:27AM
    • @Never Again I applaud your outrage but I am troubled by your phrase: "report any suspect behaviour to the appropriate authorities".What we have learned from the many inquiries worldwide is that the title "appropriate authorities" means different things to different people. It seems that quite a number of Catholics took it to mean (and, may still take it to mean) to a Catholic superior thus, conforming to canon law. To the rest of us; it means to the secular authorities - police, social services, etc. That difference dictates whether judgment and justice can be served in this world and not the next. That distinction, as Mr. Ackland writes, is the core of the problem.

      Commenter
      dhm60
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      June 13, 2014, 9:33AM
    • dhm60 - thank you for pointing out the lack of clarity in my phrasing; that is a crucial point. "The appropriate authorities" is the appropriate government authorities (Police, Community Services (under FACS), etc). Our church does have a protocol for telling "head office" as well but only AFTER the police, etc.

      Commenter
      Never Again
      Location
      Here
      Date and time
      June 13, 2014, 11:02AM
  • The French experience of dragging the Catholic Church kicking and fighting under the umbrella of Republican secular law is instructive. It has taken the French 3 revolutions, 2 counter revolutions, the Dreyfus Affair, 2 attempted coups d'etat, collaboration with the Nazis and 5 confrontations with the Vatican to finally get some level of compliance. (That history spans 225 years) However, as recent French "pro-life/pro family values" street demonstrations showed; there is still plenty of fight left in French Catholic church and it supporters.
    Australia (and the US and Eire), with is deeply ingrained Catholic influence in both the major political parties; faces a far more difficult job in getting Catholic organizations and their employees to comply with Australian (or US or Eireian) secular law.
    btw: The secular law that most incensed the French Catholic church and the Vatican had nothing to do with it policing and ceasing its practice of sexually and physically abusing children. It concerned the setting up of French secular schools (Loi Ferry of 1882) thus depriving the church of its centuries-old right/rite of indoctrination or the mental abuse of children. Comparisons with moves by Australian Catholic politicians and church leaders to progressively reduce the funding and thus influence of secular schools are worthwhile.

    Commenter
    dhm60
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    June 13, 2014, 9:10AM
    • The Church's leaders and apologists do not seem to realise that the Apocalypse is upon them. The rush to canonise the late John-Paul 2 who was at least complacent if not compliant in the face of this horror shows that the beloved Francis also does not comprehend the enormity of what has happened. Until the Church finishes these people and hands them over for Civil/Criminal trial, until it pays realistic compensation to the violated children and families, until it ends the farce of celibacy and the cloister and until it properly acknowledges the role, responsibilty and authority of women and the laity generally the Church is doomed. It is time for the structure and authority of the Church to change completely. The simple matter is that the church under Pope Francis no longer has any meaningful moral or religious authority despite the devoted gatherings in St Peter's Square we see occasionally on the TV news. The pillars continue to tremble. As the descendant of a proud and devout Irish Catholic family I cannot properly express how angry I am at the loss of my spiritual home.

      Commenter
      narnie
      Location
      elsternwick
      Date and time
      June 13, 2014, 9:44AM
      • Religion has no place in society. It cant have a place if it only follows its own belief system and not that of the law that the rest of society follows. It doesnt deserve a voice and an opinion on any moral aspect of society if it has no morals. All through out history religion has divided people. I has only united people through conflict or duress. It preys on the weak and for those looking for answers they cant find themselves. Religion is mass manipulation at best and its leaders are wolves in sheeps clothing.

        Commenter
        Burto
        Location
        Emu Plains
        Date and time
        June 13, 2014, 10:09AM
        • Burto - thank you for your opinion on all matters to do with religion. It is sad that you have such a narrow view of all that religion has offered to the world over the ages. There has been bad, no question about it, but that is not the whole picture.

          Commenter
          What?
          Location
          Library
          Date and time
          June 13, 2014, 11:03AM
      • The Church is dying and will scramble to maintain what political power it can. Perhaps it is time that the public were given access to the Charters of these boy's schools (generally it is these exclusive male domains) and question whether we want to fund organisations whose ethos is to infiltrate and take over positions of power to strengthen this hypocritical church. And yes - I am a former catholic.

        Commenter
        Arbee
        Date and time
        June 13, 2014, 10:18AM
        • It is good to see the bile against Catholics is still so strong.
          1. I have yet to see any evidence that priests who committed acts of paedophilia,etc. actually ever confessed these acts in a confessional.
          2. Catholics have always had the right to take complaints to the police. It is puzzling that so few seem to have done so.
          3. If a complaint is made to a church official, and that church official then takes that complaint to the police then it is merely hearsay, unless there is a victim prepared to verify the complaint.
          4. Mandatory reporting has been largely ignored by doctors, nurses and teachers when it comes to FGM in Australia.
          5. Similarly aboriginal children with STIs have been largely ignored by medical personnel, and not reported to police.

          Commenter
          Mark
          Location
          Turramurra
          Date and time
          June 13, 2014, 11:33AM
          • Whenever the church does something good, there's no mention of it anywhere in the media. When it does something bad, vile poison spews from the media eager to destroy the church. The church needs reform , not destruction.

            Commenter
            Shaz
            Date and time
            June 13, 2014, 11:44AM

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