The Catholic church is in crisis. Recruitment numbers for the priesthood are dropping, and congregations are falling away in droves. The recent visit of the Pope to the UK was met by much smaller crowds than anticipated, with attendances over 40% below the expected level.
For years, there have been investigations into child abuse with a substantial number of cases being settled out of court, a rising bill that already exceed a billion dollars. It is known that a very large number of these serial child abusers were protected by the church, and were subsequently moved to new parishes or countries, where they re-offended. Child rapists were permitted to stay in the church, re-offending and being tolerated, and in some cases, even being promoted and moved to positions of greater responsibility. And not a whisper about their vile criminal activities.
Many are asking how it is possible for such widespread criminal activity to be hidden from the legal authorities by the church. Many are asking how the church can continue to justify its appalling neglect of the interests of the children in its care. To answer these questions, we need to understand something about how the Catholic church manages its internal affairs.
Geoffrey Robertson QC guides us through the arcane logic of a religious institution steeped in secrecy and dogma, which maintains a hidden world ruled by Papal edicts and threats of excommunication.
Just about the worst thing possible for a Catholic is the act of excommunication, a rejection of them by the church, a very public condemnation and exclusion. For young people who have been brought up to see the priest as the representative of God, the threat of excommunication is a very powerful mechanism of control. But the very existence of the rules by which the church operates, called Canon Law, is supposed to be kept secret.
Canon Law is a set of rules for dealing with the misbehaviour of members of the church and it wasn’t codified formally until 1917 and then it was revised in 1983. The procedural rules were issued as a “secret of the Holy Office” in 1922 which meant that anyone disclosing the contents would be immediately excommunicated. That’s right, the rules were secret and the only reason that Catholics generally became aware of them at all was because they were leaked in 2003 to lawyers for US victims of child abuse. These rules are in Latin and seem to have been sent only to bishops, so they were never intended for the Catholic public.
Canon Law is regarded by the Vatican as overruling any state or federal laws, or any international law, and that means Catholic church officials will operate under total secrecy to deal with matters such as child abuse internally, without any referral to state or local authorities.
Rather like the omerta of the Mafia, the rules operate in total secrecy and everything covered by them is kept away from the eyes of the normal judicial authorities. Offences are judged by methods not normally accepted as fair justice, and sentences are handed down and carried out without any public acknowledgement.
But what judgements? What sentences? Until the contents of the Canon Law were seen, no-one was in a position to review the actions of the catholic church in dealing with child abusers in its midst. The shroud of Canon Law meant that a youngster raising the complaint that they were being abused would be required at the point of making the complaint, to swear to secrecy on pain of excommunication. All those involved in any enquiry or handling of the complaint were similarly sworn to secrecy. The records were locked away in Vatican vaults.
If there was any justice to be had, it would be invisible. Those making the complaints were prevented from talking about it for 10 years, now raised to 20. Their only recourse was to trust the church to handle the complaint, and for themselves to keep silent. But what actually happened when complaints were made?
The Crimen Sollicitationis, which lists child abuse as one of the “unspeakable crimes” describes how two character witnesses who know the defendent are to be sworn in to testify. They swear an oath of secrecy. The defendant himself is never required to take an oath or to tell the truth. If he confesses, or inadvertently gives details of a criminal offence, Canon Law forbids the judge from noting it. An incredible standard of conduct for an apparent investigation of child abuse.
The whole process is geared to enabling the perpetrator to repent and mend his ways, without any effective punishment or control to prevent re-offense. The procedure is not at all about justice, about holding the perpetrator to account. There is no forensic or medical examination, no cross-examination, no court procedure, in fact nothing that would indicate a serious investigation of crime at all. Everything is geared towards looking after the priest who has been caught. Nothing in the process recognises that a criminal act has been exposed which demands police involvement.
But what of the penalties for those found guilty? Surely at the very least, they would be defrocked, kicked out of the priesthood, banned from any contact with children, handed over to the police? Not a bit of it. They are given the following: “chiefly spiritual exercises to be made for a certain number of days in some religious house, with suspension from the celebration of mass during that period”. Sometimes, they could be sent for internal rehabilitation, but what is missing here is any sense that a crime has been committed.
The belief that this is an internal moral problem affecting the priest overrides any concern for the victims of the crime. Instead of acknowledging the criminal behaviour and the legal responsibility to report it, and the moral responsibility to hold the perpetrator accountable in law, the church considers it a matter of sin on the part of the priest. All efforts are geared towards restoring the priests spiritual status.
So we have an institution that convinces itself that it is above the law, need not respect local and state legislation, is able to redefine crime committed on its premises as a private matter, coerces witnesses and victims to remain silent on pain of excommunication, and which totally refuses to cooperate with legal authorities. Tony Soprano would recognise them as kindred spirits.
But on what possible basis could the Vatican claim to be able to operate its own parallel legal system? How does that fit with international law? Can the Pope seriously claim immunity? The issue now arises because many of the victims are claiming compensation. Religious bodies have different legal status in different jurisdictions. Some are defined as legal entities, liable for the actions of their employees, whereas others have no legal “personality” at all, and therefore cannot be sued.
In some cases, the Catholic church has allowed its dioceses to go bankrupt to avoid claims for compensation. But this only points to the Vatican as the next potential target. What then is the legal status of the Vatican, of the Holy See, and the Pope himself? As the CEO of the the world Catholic organisation, one would think that he has ultimate responsibility, but then there’s the awkward question of papal infallibility, which inhibits Catholic politicians from raising the issue.
In fact, the Vatican claims that it, and/or the Holy See, constitutes a state. But this is problematic because although the Vatican has exploited every possible avenue to claim representation in the UN and on its committees, pushing a dogmatic religious agenda, it fails miserably to meet the conditions for statehood laid down by the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States, the acid test applied internationally.
To be a state in international law, you have to have a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, the capacity to enter into relations with other states, and a few other conditions including the ability to police your territory. But the Vatican is actually a palace surrounded by gardens and museums. It has no permanent population, doesn’t require a passport, is policed by the Italian state, and even the palace guards are Swiss. All of its services are provided by the city in which is exists, namely Rome.
The Holy See has, by definition, no population at all. There is no citizenship. Anyone who works in the Vatican does so because they have rights accorded under Italian law to be there. In law, the “territory” of the Vatican is nonsensical – it is a palace owned by the Pope. A state has to be sovereign over its territory but any crime committed in the Vatican is dealt with by the Italian judicial system. Even the Vatican Embassy has no power.
Similarly, there does not exist any government of the state. There is only a proprietor. As to the fourth condition of statehood, the only way that the Vatican can enter into relations with states is in the same way any NGO can do so, by means of a Concordat, an agreement which even a private individual can make.
The pretensions to statehood stem from a very shady deal, the Lateran Treaty, made by the Vatican to support Mussolini in exchange for concessions in 1929. This was far from a Treaty in the legal sense: it was a local arrangement between the Italian state and a church. Nevertheless, the Vatican promotes itself as a state based on this agreement.
As Geoffrey Robertson points out though, we should consider other hypothetical cases to check the validity of this position. “Would the world recognise Mecca as a state if Saudi Arabia negotiated a Lateran-style treaty with its religious leader in order to further an extreme Wahabi ‘mission to the world’? Would we be happy to welcome the Holy City of Qom into the councils of the UN if President Ahmadinejad were to negotiate a Lateran-style treaty with its senior Ayatollah?”
The international legal position of the Vatican, the Holy See, and the Pope is being used to claim state immunity from prosecution. Shrouded in secrecy, evading the jurisdiction of states, and with mounting evidence of an institutional disregard for the safety and rights of children in its care, the catholic church stands accused of breaching very many of the treaties is has signed in its guise as a quasi-state. Robertson argues that if we take the Vatican claims to statehood seriously, then we should act on its systematic breach of international law.
It could be suspended from the committees of the UN, and be held to account for its breaches. States could withdraw its diplomats from the Vatican. The UN could insist that Canon Law be updated to include the provisions of human rights to ensure that Vatican secrecy can never again protect criminals inside the catholic church. The Congregation of the Defence of the Faith would have to open its archives to expose the evidence of the cover-up, the systematic protection of paedophiles.
If on the other hand, the Catholic church wants to evade its international responsibilities, then we should treat it as any other NGO and hold its chief executive as ultimately responsible. Either way, the church has to be held to account. As more evidence comes to light, the sheer horror of the scale of the cover-up beggars belief. We may never know the full extent but it is not unreasonable to consider it a crime against humanity.
How many people have been abused by Catholic priests? It is difficult to get an accurate number because of the way in which the church itself dealt with complaints. But one estimate is based on the known incidence of offenders: a random survey across the USA and Canada showed 1.7% of females and 3.3 % of males had been abused.
If that is applied to a population of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, that comes out at around 30 million victims. If that figure is accurate, how can it not be described as a crime against humanity? And how can the international community continue to fête the leader of such a culpable organisation? How can international leaders continue to seek an audience?
For the very many honest, decent, moral and responsible Catholic followers of the church, this must be a devastating time. They see the institution they were brought up in mired in criminality and cover-up, their religious leaders exposed as conspirators in the subversion of justice. Is it any wonder the church is in crisis? Catholics have a legal responsibility to blow the whistle. It seems hard to see any other moral course of action.
This book is a bold statement that no-one is above the law, not individuals nor massively powerful institutions like the Catholic church. Every Catholic should read this book and then use it to ask the questions and insist on the answers.