Royal Commission to challenge the Vatican on Catholic Church law

History: Former trainee priest Kieran Tapsell, far right, with other trainee priests before he left without being ordained. Mr Tapsell went on to write a book revealing the cover-up of abuse by six popes.
History: Former trainee priest Kieran Tapsell, far right, with other trainee priests before he left without being ordained. Mr Tapsell went on to write a book revealing the cover-up of abuse by six popes.

POPE Francis has been accused of “doing nothing” to end the Catholic Church’s refusal to report child sexual abuse to police in most of the world after a papal letter to bishops on January 2, only weeks before a major Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse final hearing into the church.

The Pope condemned “the covering up and denial” of sexual abuse within the church, which he described as “a sin that shames us”.

But critics including Australian lawyer and author Kieran Tapsell, American priest and canon lawyer Thomas Doyle, abuse survivors and groups including Catholics for Renewal, have criticised the Pope for failing to change canon law which prevents bishops reporting child sexual abuse to civil authorities, including police, in most of the world.

Their criticism, in submissions to a public hearing into the Catholic Church from February 6 and comments after Pope Francis’s January 2 letter, is consistent with serious concerns raised by two United Nations committees about a canon law ban, and a request to the Pope to allow reporting to authorities in all parts of the world.

In September, 2014 Pope Francis formally refused the United Nations committees’ request. 

In Australia only NSW and Victoria have comprehensive reporting laws where bishops are required, under a canon law exemption in 2010, to report all abuse allegations to civil authorities including police.

While Pope Francis was praised by many for condemning “the covering up and denial”, Mr Tapsell described the Pope’s letter to bishops as “more bella figura from Pope Francis on child sexual abuse”, with “bella figura” an Italian term for “keeping up appearances and hiding mistakes”. 

The letter was another attempt at “covering up a dreadful mistake in canon law, condemning the abuse itself and the cover up, but doing nothing about canon law which is the legal foundation for it”, Mr Tapsell said.

The letter was made public after the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, appointed by the Pope in 2014 in response to the Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal, released guidelines in December for dealing with abuse allegations.

The guidelines failed to include a requirement that all bishops report all abuse allegations to police, despite commission president Cardinal Sean O’Malley saying in early 2016 that “we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities”.

The issuing of the guidelines without the requirement “makes it clear the commission has lost the argument within the Vatican”, Mr Tapsell said.

“It is pretty obvious that O'Malley and the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors have been rolled.”

Mr Tapsell trained as a Catholic priest for six years but left before he was ordained. He became a lawyer and in 2014 his book on the church, Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse, was published, in which he stated bishops were ordered to cover up child sexual abuse “through canon law by six Popes since Pius XI in 1922”.

American priest and canon lawyer Thomas Doyle, who in 1985 wrote a report for the church on medical and legal issues raised by paedophilia in the priesthood, that included a warning of “a national scandal if the hierarchy did not adopt a sound policy”, agreed with Mr Tapsell’s assessment of the current state of the church.  

In an email in response to Newcastle Herald questions, Father Doyle said “The Holy See keeps hiding behind its belief that not all places require reporting and that in some places the police are corrupt therefore it is dangerous to report. This has been the line all along because increasing pressure has been put on the church to require reporting”.

While he believed the Pope was committed to child protection, Father Doyle said “the major hold up and stumbling block are members of the Vatican curia who still are in denial about the serious nature of this issue”.

The Royal Commission final hearing into the Catholic Church from February 6 will consider the extent to which canon law and the church’s structure and governance, including the role of the Vatican, contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Australian Catholic institutions.

It will also consider the impact of canon law and the Vatican on how the Australian church responded to allegations of abuse when they were raised over decades.

Submissions to the public hearing, available on the Royal Commission website, include a Catholics for Renewal report condemning the church over the sexual abuse of children around the world, and criticising the “dysfunctional governance at the heart of that abuse”.

Catholics for Renewal and its president, Peter Johnstone, accused Pope Francis of mixed signals, and church hierarchy of “grave denial” of the crimes that had occurred worldwide because of church law. 

“The pontifical secret continues to forbid bishops from reporting known paedophiles to police unless a state law mandates criminal reporting,” the Catholics for Renewal submission said.

“The Royal Commission has heard evidence of church leaders being aware of the abuse of children but, with apparent endorsement and direction from the Vatican, failing to report such knowledge to civil authorities and thus failing to protect other children from abuse, indeed exposing other children to abuse.”

While a recent instruction from Pope Francis dealing with bishops and clergy sexual abuse was “somewhat encouraging”, the Pope had failed to change canon law on bishops reporting allegations to police, the submission said.

The Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council said several canon lawyers had advised there was “nothing in canon law prohibiting any cleric or religious reporting an offender to the police”. It was “common practice in Australia” for bishops to report child sexual abuse allegations to police.