The National Catholic Review

Paragraph 1.15 of the devastating Murphy Commission's report into the cover-up of clerical sex abuse of minors by bishops says it all:

The Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State.

Thursday's 720-page report asked why church leaders in the Dublin Archdiocese, home to a quarter of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, did not inform public authorities about a single abuse complaint against a priest until 1995. Yet from the early 1970s until that time, four archbishops compiled confidential files on more than 100 parish priests who had sexually abused children since 1940. Not one of them was prosecuted under canon or civil law.

The complicity of public officials went deep. Rather than take action on the allegations, the Gardai preferred to do nothing or to trust the Church to deal with it behind closed doors. But the Church did not deal with it. Chapter 4 of the Report documents a “collapse of respect for canon law in archdiocesan circles ... offenders were neither prosecuted nor made accountable within the Church”. Only two canonical trials ever took place in the 30-year period under investigation, both in the 1990s and in the teeth of the opposition of one of the most powerful canonists in the archdiocese, Mgr Sheehy, who “actually considered that the penal aspects of that law should rarely be invoked”. Mgr Sheehy, the report adds later, "rejected the view that the Archdiocese had any responsibility to report child sexual abuse to the state authorities. He thought the Church's internal processes should be used but, in fact, he was totally opposed to the use of the Church penal process."

The real scandal, therefore, was not only that the Church failed always to inform public authorities -- it is a moot question whether public authorities at the time had the will to prosecute priests, so great was the deference to clergy -- but that the Church failed to apply its own canonical procedures.

Canon law is not "soft" on clerical abusers, as some newspaper reports imply. Nor is it an alternative to the civil process, as if this were a means of evading civil law. Canon law  --both the 1917 Code, and the revised one of 1983 -- demands that following an allegation a bishop investigate, and if true, expel the abuser from the priesthood, a public act of repudiation of the abuser which reflects the gravity of the offence. The report acknowledges this recourse in the Church's law, and damns  bishops and canonists for casting it aside:

The Commission is satisfied that Church law demanded serious penalties for clerics who abused children. In Dublin from the 1970s onwards this was ignored; the highest priority was the protection of the reputation of the institution and the reputation of priests. The moving around of offending clerics with little or no disclosure of their past is illustrative of this.

Why was canon law ignored? This is one of the burning questions behind the clerical sex abuse scandal. There was undoubtedly a suspicion of legalism in the 1970s-80s; the knowledge at that period that canon law was to be updated to reflect the Second Vatican Council led to a widespread belief that the 1917 Code was in abeyance. By the time the 1983 Code was eventually promulgated, an anti-legalist mindset had set in, and bishops preferred therapy to sanctions. Few knew how to conduct a canonical trial, and diocesan tribunals seldom dealt with anything other than marriage annulments.

Now it is too late. Instead of setting an example to civil law, canon law has shown itself to be inadequate in dealing with some of the most serious crimes that can be committed by a priest. The Church has been forced to renounce its proper jurisdiction.

The right-wing critics have a point when they criticize the postconciliar Church for its anti-legalistic mindset. But clerical sex abuse crisis has a strong preconciliar element to it -- not just the fact that the abuser priests had been trained in preconcilar seminaries, but also the persistence of a societas perfecta model of Church which flew in the face of postconciliar ecclesiogy. It was the combination of that preconciliar mentality --that the Church is a society unto itself, floating freely and apart from the society in which it operated -- with postconciliar ignorance of and hostility to the law that has proved so fatal in Dublin, as elsewhere.

The purgation which our bishops have undergone ensures that the societas perfecta mentality is all but dead now. No one can argue, after the clerical sex abuse crisis, that the Church automatically has a superior moral claim by virtue of being the Church. But will the law be restored? That challenge remains.

Comments

S Bond | 12/1/2009 - 1:45pm
Brendan - I appreciate your honest post and expression of frustration.
It's possible that, like the Bishops who were shifting abusive priests from parish to parish, the more orthodox groups see sex abuse as something to be covered up.  (Though, a la Watergate, we learn again and again that cover up is more scandalous than crime nine times out of ten.)
It's also possible - though a really scary possibility - that on some level many Catholics don't see sex abuse of children by clergy as that big a deal.  We had a priest at my childhood parish who turned out to be a serial abuser (many cases currently pending) and when the news ''broke'' (it wasn't news to those of us who were kids at the time, we all knew he was strange) the level of denial among the older, more conservative, folks was, to me, surprising.  They seemed content to conclude, ''Well, he never touched MY kids!'' and leave it at that.  Any talk of holding Cardinal Law accountable (he reassigned the above priest even though he had all the abuse information in hand and had been warned that the man was a not capable of being rehabilitated) was brushed off with "Look at all the fundraising he does for the poor!" 
It's painful to think about how vulnerable kids are (how vulnerable we all were at one time) so I guess a lot of people would just as soon gloss the scandal over. 
I think that if the more conservative, large Catholic organizations came forward to demand accountability, it would have a huge, positive impact, and so I hope my musings above are way off.
Anonymous | 11/29/2009 - 12:15pm
Brendan: I think you make very cogent observation w reagard to the way in which Bishops and the Popes JPII and Benedict are/ were not held accountable. I think it is a very comoplicated issue.
Brendan McGrath | 11/29/2009 - 8:09am
My thoughts and opinions on the sex abuse scandals in the Church are complicated and many-sided, and I hold various things in tension, etc.  I tend to have anger or frustration at the hierarchy, the media and various secular anti-Catholic voices, lay people who turn away from the Church because of the scandals, lots of different groups. 
But one thing I wanted to comment on here - has anyone noticed the interesting way in which many ''conservative'' (labels are tricky) members of our Catholic community will criticize bishops for various other things, but not really demand accountability and reform, etc. when it comes to the sex abuse scandals?  This isn't necessarily a criticism; it's just something I'm trying to understand more, and perhaps looking at it more could reveal helpful ways forward, etc.  Look, for example, at the reaction among ''conservative'' Catholics to the whole Catholic Campaign for Human Development thing; look at how critical EWTN's Raymond Arroyo has been on ''The World Over'' of it.  And then, look at how they actually forced Bishop Morin to RESPOND to those criticisms at the USCCB's meeting.  And then, look at how another bishop (Bishop Bruskewitz) has criticized Bishop Morin's response.  Another example of the voice of conservative laity forcing bishops to respond to criticism is when that bishop in San Francisco had to issue a statement when he gave Communion to someone in drag or whatever.  My point is, why do we see outrage, demands for change, even calls for people to withhold donations, when it comes to things like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, but you generally don't see that when it comes to sex abuse scandals? 
Yes, of course there is outrage and calls for reform from ''conservative'' Catholics with regard to getting abusers out of the priesthood (and of course there's controversy over how that should be done, whether homosexual persons should be banned from the seminary, etc.), but when it comes to holding the bishops accountable, there seems to be some sort of disconnect.  On ''The World Over'' with Raymond Arroyo, there were calls for more transparency and accountability from the CCHD - but why the disconnect when it comes to demanding transparency and accountability from bishops on the sex abuse issue? 
Furthermore, why does there seem to be a similar disconnect or blindspot for many ''conservative'' Catholics with regard to the potential responsibility of John Paul II, and/or Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger?  Some will say that John Paul II didn't know, but... is it really as simple as that?  I do realize that it's so much more complicated; I think that John Paul II is/was a good, holy man, despite his faults and matters on which I would disagree with him; I don't think it's a matter of ''cover up'' with regard to him; I think he and many just weren't thinking in those categories.  But regardless, why is there this disconnect in how many ''conservative'' Catholics view him?  In the rush to canonize him, I mean, isn't anyone thinking about how it would relate to the sex abuse scandals?  What about his giving Cardinal Law that post at the basilica?  I mean, why is that just ignored?
I've often thought that the problem with a group like Voice of the Faithful is that it doesn't wrap itself in orthodoxy and fidelity to the Church enough, which makes it easier to ignore or disregard.  The hierarchy doesn't need to pay attention to them.  But if the Knights of Columbus started calling for reform, that would be a different story.  Perhaps any reform effort needs to come from groups that look less like VOTF, and more like EWTN or the Knights of Columbus.
Anyway, just some thoughts;  I'm sorry that it's somewhat incoherent and rambling, but I don't really have much time to craft it more.
Carolyn Disco | 11/29/2009 - 1:10am
Sorry, www.vowsofsilencefilm.com - not ''fiolm.com''
Carolyn Disco | 11/29/2009 - 1:03am
To continue:
 
In 1995, the church’s highest court modified canon 1044 on “psychic defect” to include a sane priest with a “general mental disorder.” IOW, at least you did not have to be judged insane to be removed.
 
In 1997, the pronuncio was peppering US bishops with questions about diocesan policies and procedures that could be “canonically null.”
 
Fast forward to Dallas, 2002 after survivor lawsuits, the courts and the media brought episcopal negligence to the fore. Under guidance by the PR firm of R.F. Binder, bishops went into major damage control with the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms.
 
By 2002-2003, JPII allowed the CDF to waive “prescription” in individual cases, the canonical equivalent of statutes of limitation. The CDF could henceforth handle abuse cases using an administrative or non-judicial process.
 
The prime exhibit of the injustices of the Vatican’s canon law system is the case of Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel. Eight Legion seminarians filed a case in 1998 that was deep sixed due to Maciel’s influence with JPII; a “delicate matter” according to Ratzinger to charge someone who had done so much for the church.
 
Nothing for eight long years, and then no verdict on the merits. Only a face-saving slap on the hands for Maciel in 2006 “inviting” him to a life of prayer and penance. The DVD is a searing indictment of the whole canon law system. Money and power rule.
 
As a noted canonist commented confidentially, canon law is basically what a bishop wants it to be. Bishops hold full executive, legislative and judicial power in their persons; no separation of powers and secrecy dominates. The record in sexual abuse matters is abysmal.
Carolyn Disco | 11/29/2009 - 1:01am
I disagree with Austen Ivereigh and David that canon law was adequate, only its application was deficient. The system itself is at fault, as well as key players.
 
Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s book and DVD, Vows of Silence (www.vowsofsilencefiolm.com), examines the justice system of the church in detail over decades of the sexual abuse scandal. The authors note that beginning in the fall of 1989 American bishops begged for canon law reforms to allow them more latitude in removing abusive priests.
 
Representatives sent to negotiate with the Vatican returned empty-handed, with the ridiculous non-sequitur that since the streamlining of canon law processes had resulted in numerous marriage annulments, similar streamlining for accused molesters “could be a threat to their rights.” (p. 130)
 
No response was available beyond cumbersome secret trials lasting perhaps up to ten years, and that constituted impediments in civil case discovery. Bishops were also aware of their ineffectiveness. Read where priests like Anthony Cipolla and Robert Trupia appealed to Rome, and despite compelling evidence to the contrary, had their suspensions revoked. It took years of follow-up to get these molesters removed.
 
Again in 1993, a delegation of American bishops unsuccessfully pleaded for reforms. JPII personally denied them greater autonomy under canon law.”You’ll get no quick fixes out of me,” he told them (p. 93).
 
Finally by 1994, after ignoring abuse victims, JPII allowed two changes: the statute of limitations was extended from five to ten years after the victim turned 18, and the age of minority was extended from 16 to under 18. (Never mind that an average age of survivors reporting abuse has been the mid-40’s at the earliest. And the scapegoat theory that the pope just did not know is questionable at best.)
jim dick | 11/28/2009 - 3:44pm
"The purgation which our bishops have undergone ensures that the societas perfecta mentality is all but dead now."
 
Do you really think this mentality is dead? I fear it still underlies much of the thinking evident in many of the Church’s statements - a moral superiority that tends to regard the Church, particularly the hierarchy, as the key arbiter of what is right and moral in our society. It seems to me that there is an unambiguous effort to "regain" the moral high ground and a reentrenchment by reactionary forces in the Church that denies the systemic nature of the abuse in the American Church and refuses to open the books and create a genuine “aggiornamento” that draws on the wisdom and faith of the whole Church.
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn | 11/28/2009 - 9:14am
Thank you for noting and linking to the critics from one side that would point to Vatican II and postconciliar as the root cause of this ugly tragedy.  The need to place blame by political, social or sexual orientation is not the heart of the matter. Your piece refocuses us on a more vital questions. As for answers - what can possibly be sufficient as answers here?
 
 
Austen Ivereigh | 11/28/2009 - 3:59am
David: thank you. That was my point. "The Church has shown itself inadequate in the application of its law with respect to abuse" would have been better.
Anonymous | 11/27/2009 - 7:09pm
The hierarchy in the US have successfully dodged the cover -up scandal with the pew Catholics.. their arguments 'everybody' else does it too, and, 'it's all about greedy survivors and lawyers' has played well in the pews ...with enormous help from lay Catholic minimalists. One group of minimalists just keeps posting 'it's really the teachers'
VOTF, SNAP CTA have been successfully labelled dissident anti-Catholics for even mentioning the smell. This was done by overwhelming numbers of Bishops and their lay allies. I believe that the Irish Church will lose the PR campaign.. It will not work in Ireland because of A/B Martin and the scandal of both Church and State is like an un-buried corpse and the stink is sure to endure. The mention in the report about clerics and hierarchy using ' mental reservation' or lying needs further examination and exposure.In the US this tactic has been used in depositions and is difficult to prosecute in state courts. Lying to Feds is a different matter.. ask Martha Stewart and Bill Clinton; If these abuse cover-up cases could be brought into Federal juristriction I'm sure the sordid story would be a cause for Catholic reform. [will A/B Martin be denied a Red Hat? that's the sign to look for]
Helena Loflin | 11/27/2009 - 6:25pm
For generation after generation, the Church and state in Ireland were too tight with each other.  The result?  Viola!  To the contrary, God has blessed America with clear, rational (and always under attack by the Right) separation of church and state.  May Americans pay close attention to the history of the too-close relationship between church and state in Ireland and avoid being doomed to repeat same. 
David Patrick | 11/27/2009 - 6:08pm
No, canon law has not shown itself to be inadequate in dealing with some of the most serious crimes that can be committed by a priest, it simply wasn't applied.