Why is the Vatican allowed to operate a parallel legal system that allows criminals to escape justice?
The Irish TV station RTE this week broadcast a documentary which revealed a newly-uncovered letter from 1997 that showed that the Vatican had told Irish bishops not to report abusive priests to the police.
The Irish bishops had formulated a policy that required all abuse cases to be reported to the police authorities. The Vatican’s letter told them that such a course was unacceptable and that cases should be dealt with internally by the church, using canon law.
The contents of the letter were then reported around the world, with a clear implication that the present pope and his predecessor (who is being rushed into sainthood) were both guilty of approving policies that permitted abusive priests to escape proper justice. The clear message from the letter is that protecting the interests of the Catholic Church always takes precedence over the protection of children.
The release of the letter is sure to embarrass the “apostolic visitation” that is presently assessing the state of the Irish church in the wake of the child abuse scandal. The “visitation” is being led by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor who himself covered up the activities of a notorious paedophile priest.
Needless to say, the Vatican immediately launched a counter-propaganda campaign denying that the letter meant what it appeared to say.
The letter was written to the Irish bishops by the Vatican's then-representative to Ireland, the late Archbishop Luciano Storero. In it, he expressed the Vatican’s concerns that legal requirements that bishops report priests accused of abuse to police might cause conflicts with Church law.
The Vatican now claims that it “wanted to ensure that Irish Church officials followed Church law in reporting accused priests — in order to avoid having their decisions overturned on technicalities by Vatican officials”. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, said: “The letter rightly emphasises the importance of always respecting canonical legislation, precisely in order to ensure that guilty parties do not have justified grounds for an appeal and thus producing a result contrary to the one desired," he said.
Vatican and Irish Church officials stated that any “fair reading” of the letter indicates that the Church took seriously the abuse allegations and the attempt to prosecute them. Indeed, they said, the purpose of the letter was to ensure that the priest’s rights to a fair trial were respected and that the verdicts would hold up on appeal. Unfortunately, the trials being referred to are church trials conducted in secret and without any proper oversight.
In his fire-fighting 2010 pastoral letter to Ireland's Catholics, the pope criticised bishops for failing to follow canon law and offered no explicit endorsement of Irish child-protection efforts by the Irish church or state. Benedict was widely criticised in Ireland for failing to admit any Vatican role in covering up the truth. The Vatican still does not see any need to bring priests to justice other than through its own secret courts.
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said the Vatican is trying, as usual, to throw up a smokescreen. He commented: “The Vatican is aiming to sow confusion about the difference between canon law and the law of the land. It tries to make out that trying abusive priests by canon law is somehow an adequate method of justice. But canon law trials are non- adversarial; they are conducted in secret by correspondence, with priests benefiting from character references from their superiors. If the trials ever reach a conclusion — which they often don’t — they carry no penalty harsher than defrocking. And even that can only happen if the pope gives the OK, which he very rarely does. Cases can drag on for years, often until the abuser is dead and the church can be spared any further embarrassment. Mr Wood concluded that it was scandalous that authorities outside the Vatican permitted the church to operate this parallel legal system within secular legal jurisdictions.
Geoffrey Robertson QC goes further. In his book The Case of the Pope, he denounces Canon Law as a “secret, ineffective and non-punitive process for dealing with child sex abuse by priests”. He sets out the Articles of the UN Convention of the Child with which it is conflict: “It favours the priest at the expense of the best interests of the child (a breach of Article 3(1)); which does not provide effective procedures for investigation, reporting, referral or judicial involvement (a breach of article 19(2)), and has secrecy provisions that preclude national, bilateral and multi-national measures (a breach of article 34). Worryingly, Mr Robertson has established that (despite Vatican claims to the contrary) proceedings under Canon Law preclude prosecution according to the criminal law and procedures of any state: “because from the moment a complaint is formally made, and for ever after, all participants in the [Canon Law] process are sworn to total secrecy”.
Meanwhile, in Tucson, Arizona, another letter has been uncovered which indicates that bishops there, too, had been instructed by the Vatican not to co-operate with civil authorities in child abuse cases.
Geoffrey Robertson’s revealing book, the Case of the Pope, is obtainable from Amazon UK and your purchase will help the NSS at no cost to you