ON January 2 Pope Francis issued a letter to the world’s bishops condemning the “covering up and denial” of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and claiming the church has a “zero tolerance” of abuse.
But while the Pope refuses to change canon law his words are just more “bella figura” – an Italian term for keeping up appearances and hiding mistakes.
If he really wants to do something about abuse in the church, he should rethink his 2014 rejection of requests by two United Nations committees to impose mandatory reporting of all cases of child sexual abuse to civil authorities, and not just in places like NSW and Victoria which have comprehensive civil reporting laws.
In February, 2013 the Vatican clearly stated its position to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference about its protocol, Towards Healing. Bishops were told clause 39 of Towards Healing, which required all allegations to be reported to police regardless of reporting laws, only applied to “non clerics”.
Clerics, the bishops were told, were to be dealt with exclusively under canon law which prevents them reporting to police where there are no civil reporting laws.
In February, 2016 the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors – established by Pope Francis as part of the church’s efforts to deal with child sexual abuse – issued a statement under its president, Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Reporting obligations under civil law had to be followed, but “even beyond these civil requirements, we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities”, he said.
The statement was significant because it was at least an indication that canon law might change to comply with the requests of the United Nations and some bishops conferences.
On December 6 the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors released new guidelines on child sexual abuse for protocols to be issued by national Catholic bishops conferences.
It would have been a simple matter to incorporate Cardinal O’Malley’s words that bishops have a “moral and ethical responsibility” to report all sexual abuse allegations to police, even where there are no civil reporting laws. They are not there.
After seeing the movie Spotlight about child sexual abuse in the church, the Vatican’s former clergy sexual abuse prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, said “It is reporting that will save the church, not “omerta”’ - the Mafia’s code of silence.
Nowhere do the guidelines suggest the “omerta” has been lifted to allow reporting where there are no civil reporting laws.
Pope Francis can change this situation. The time to do that was in December with the release of the new guidelines.
The Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors has failed to convince Pope Francis to end the pontifical “omerta” which still applies wherever clergy are accused of child sexual abuse in regions with no applicable reporting laws.
Pope Francis’ January 2 letter is disappointing for another reason. His claim that he and his predecessor have a policy of “zero tolerance” is not supported by the figures he presented to the United Nations in 2014. Only one quarter of all priests who have sexually abused children have been dismissed. The tolerance is 75 per cent, not zero.
Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press 2014).
Read his full submission to the Royal Commission here.