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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

One Law for All – and it isn’t canon law

By Keith Porteous Wood

The National Secular Society has written to the Irish Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, urging him — and the Irish Government — to resist calls from the Vatican for Canon Law to be regarded as a legitimate alternative legal system in Ireland.

The Vatican made its bid in a response to the unprecedented accusations from the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, that it deliberately impeded investigations into clerical child abuse. See the Vatican’s response here.

As well as, hopefully, helping the Irish government in compiling its reply, the NSS’s letter seeks to draw wider attention to crucially important questions of international law which theVatican’s response raises.

Now under intense pressure from the Irish Government — which has traditionally been supine to Rome’s authority — theVaticanassures them that “Church authorities will co-operate with those of the State, and will not impede the legitimate path of civil justice”.

We have suggested that this reassuring sentence is worse than meaningless. The response contains several references to civil and canon law working side by side, for example they “are not in competition and can operate in parallel”. It is logically impossible for two different legal systems to operate in parallel without being in competition or conflict. This supposed dual system is little in evidence in canon 1311: “The Church has the innate and proper right to coerce offending members of the Christian faithful with penal sanctions.”

The Vatican’s law is approved by the only remaining absolute monarchy in Europe. The legal process that it spawns is more reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera than 21st-century justice.

Those who are accused can be excused a trial if they promise to do better. Penalties are derisory – Hail Marys are not uncommon and dismissal from the clerical state is the rarely-resorted-to ultimate penalty. No cross-examination of the accused or witnesses. The complete trial is conducted in writing. This includes character witnesses – no doubt errant priests will find little difficulty in getting high status referees, unlike their victims. So this is the system of justice which the Vatican dictates must usurp proper law.

The obvious question is “which takes precedence: democratically determined and human rights compliant law, or the Vatican version? And the answer should be obvious, but — scandalously — it isn’t in practice. Church procedures, we maintain, “get in first” and in so doing subvert the proper legal process.

For example, oaths that are taken in the course of ecclesiastical trials always require absolute and perpetual secrecy on pain of excommunication. How can this do anything but preclude any subsequent civil action whatsoever for the devout? Without the evidence from those in the original trial, particularly the accused and victims, how can any civil trial proceed? Just how does this fit in with not impeding “the legitimate path of civil justice”?

It seems to come down to whether the Church hierarchy consider their loyalty to the Church and its procedures take precedence over civil law. It is only a legal requirement to report suspected child abuse to civil authorities in a few countries, so far. In the others, recourse to canonical procedures is not in itself a breach of local law, but appears to scupper the local administration of criminal justice. That is either conflict of law or conflict of sovereignty.

And returning to the Vatican’s “co-operate” point, above, practically nothing the Church has done so far can be regarded as co-operative.

If the Vatican had wished to be co-operative we would have by now found (as our letter suggested) “the Vatican using its power publicly to dissuade priests, bishops and the religious from obstructing enquiries; we would have seen it actively encouraging the reporting of clerical child abuse suspicions to civil authorities; and, crucially, we would have seen some moves towards the releasing of suspects’ files, most of which are held in Rome, presumably to frustrate legal discovery by secular authorities.”

And this is pretty much the same picture in all countries where RC clerical child abuse has been uncovered.

There is a great deal more in the three-page letter which also drew on Geoffrey Robertson QC’s excellent book The Case of the Pope.

The NSS has not left it at that. The Executive Director’s letter to the Irish Justice Minister concludes: “we ask you to raise these conflicts of law and sovereignty and withholding of evidence, and press for resolutions in the relevant international fora, for example the EU, Council of Europe and the UN.”

We are pleased to report that the Irish Government is, as we urged, sticking by its guns.

The NSS has sent a copy of the letter to Roy Brown, an international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and is working with him towards raising these issues at the UN shortly.

Published Fri, 09 Sep 2011