Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse the toughest test for the Catholic Church

A FORMER trainee Catholic priest whose evidence to the child abuse royal commission exposed the secret 20th century Vatican decisions behind a global child sex scandal said the church can heal if Pope Francis is up to the challenge.

While royal commission final report recommendations in December on celibacy and the secrecy of the confessional attracted the headlines, less publicised recommendations presented more significant and fundamental challenges that the church had to grapple with, lawyer, author and former trainee priest Kieran Tapsell said.

Central is the royal commission’s acceptance of Mr Tapsell’s recommendation that the church remove Vatican and papal decisions from 1917 that continue to impose blanket secrecy provisions over all aspects of child sex allegations and disciplinary processes in large parts of the world.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse accepted Mr Tapsell’s evidence that for 15 centuries before 1917 church law required child sex offender priests to be stripped of their status as priests and handed over to civil authorities for punishment.

It accepted Mr Tapsell’s evidence that Pope Pius XI in 1922 imposed the first blanket secrecy provisions over Catholic Church child sex cases which stopped reporting to civil authorities; they were expanded by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and Pope Paul VI in 1974, who told bishops there was no room for the exercise of conscience on the matter, and reinforced by the now sainted Pope John Paul II in 1983.

In September, 2014 Pope Francis rejected requests by two United Nations’ human rights committees to abolish the church’s secrecy provisions.

In a commentary piece on the royal commission final report for the American National Catholic Reporter, Mr Tapsell said the commission’s finding of “catastrophic institutional failure” by the Catholic Church was damning, but the church “can be fixed”.

Mr Tapsell said the church had to adopt recommendations abolishing a “pastoral approach” to child sex offender priests which allowed them to “live a life of prayer and penance” rather than be dismissed and prosecuted; a statute of limitations restricting the acceptance of abuse cases; an “imputability” test that allowed paedophile priests to use their paedophilia to overturn disciplinary proceedings; the removal of a standard of proof on disciplinary proceedings that is comparable to the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt, and the establishment of Australian church disciplinary tribunals to hear complaints rather than Vatican tribunals.

The royal commission found 61.8 per cent of survivors who said they were abused in a religious institution were under the care of the Catholic Church.

It found the church’s slow, “cumbersome, complex and confusing” disciplinary process meant Australian church authorities were reluctant to use it.

“The result was that more children were abused than would otherwise have been had the abusers been quickly weeded out,” Mr Tapsell said.

“The Royal Commission found that the church was seriously out of step with community standards in dealing with child sexual abuse, and that it suffered a catastrophic failure of leadership.”

Mr Tapsell predicted a strong political response in Australia if Pope Francis does not accept the royal commission recommendations.

The reaction “may very well be the same” as that of former Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, whose speech to Parliament in 2011 after the publication of a damning Irish report into church abuse led to a dramatic public shift in attitude towards the church.

“When it comes to the protection of the children of this state, the standards of conduct which the church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic,” Mr Kenny said.

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