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Legal compliance not enough in cases of sexual abuse

Church's failure to be vigilant undermines the institution's already damaged credibility

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • International
  • July 2, 2014
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It's been a big week for the clergy and their dealings with the police across the world. In legal matters in countries covering four continents – India, the Dominican Republic, Italy and Australia – clerics are being held to account by police and civil courts.

Two priests in India have been charged with murdering the rector of a seminary in Karnataka, in southwest India; a former papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic has been defrocked by the Vatican for child abuse and will face criminal charges; a bishop in Australia has been charged with sexually abusing an adolescent 45 years ago, and a priest in Sicily has been charged with seeking sexual favors from refugees he was supposed to be helping.

Significantly, the Vatican's Polish-born former nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Josef Wesolowski, was canonically convicted in record time last Friday. He has two months to lodge an appeal against the conviction but has still to face criminal charges that carry a jail sentence.

And in Australia, where a currently serving bishop has stepped aside after he was charged on Monday with allegedly abusing an adolescent in 1969, another senior cleric will face charges following a detailed inquiry into clerical sexual abuse over many decades in the Diocese of Maitland Newcastle.

The trial, conviction and proposed sentence – expulsion from the clergy – of the Polish nuncio is a sign that Pope Francis' "zero tolerance" policy towards clerics found to have abused children is at work. And the hastening speed with which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is dealing with cases – more than 4,000 since 2008 – is in marked contrast to the approach in the Vatican that prevailed until that year. For example, it took 20 years and the efforts of two successive bishops in the Australian Diocese of Wollongong to defrock a convicted pedophile priest.

While it will be a long time until trust and confidence in the canonical processes are restored, the evidence of recent times is that the Vatican is out to "make good". In fact, the Vatican has been dragged kicking and screaming to its present position. It has been shamed into action after inquiries in many countries have shown how negligent Church authorities have been in the protection provided for children in the care of Catholic institutions. The Vatican now claims it has "streamlined" and sped up processes that used to take decades.

The rule of law in secular societies – in the United States, Europe and Australia in particular – has forced Roman authorities to act outside their comfort zones and be subject to law enforcement and legal processes that they previously had thought themselves to be above. The Catholic Church is being held accountable in ways it has never been before.

The rule of law is one thing. Police, courts of law and governments that legislate on codes of conduct and mandatory reporting procedures relate to the public accountability the Church cannot avoid where there are effective police forces and independent judicial processes.

But the rule of law will flounder and eventually deliver far less than it should if there is not something else. The necessary values underpinning institutions that manage the rule of law also have to work. Without transparency, accountability and a readiness to recognize that public trust is much more important for the Church than just about anything else, the reforms of legal procedures inside the Church and a willingness to see justice done according to the rule of law will fail.

All institutions forfeit the trust of the public unless they are nourished by such values. And this is where the Catholic Church still has a lot to learn about the lasting and corrupting effect of the absence of these values.

In business and government where the rule of law applies, it is taken for granted that the failure to be transparent, putting obstacles in the course of justice, to declare a personal interest, failure to act on certain facts or worse, the covering up of knowledge of misdeeds, all bring with them the expectation that leaders, ministers and the corporate executives involved will resign. They may not have been guilty of any offense. But their credibility is gone and so are they.

Not so in the Church. The most notorious instance is the flight of the then-archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, to the protection of the Vatican. If he had remained in the United States, he would have faced charges over his cover-ups of sex-abusing clerics while he was archbishop. But he was able to thrive in Rome as a person of exceptional influence and apparently credible public standing.

Regrettably, the phenomenon is much wider and reaches even to the circle surrounding the present pope in the person of a member of his council of cardinals charged with reforming the Curia.

Last year, Pope Francis named Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, the most powerful defender of a child-abusing priest who was eventually convicted in a Vatican process, as one of eight cardinals on the commission advising him on Vatican reforms.

Errázuriz refused to act on a victim's allegations in 2003, telling the priest not to worry, according to news accounts and legal testimony. The cardinal is yet to acknowledge and confess his failure to address the sexual abuse of adolescent boys by a popular member of his diocesan clergy. His credibility, or lack of it, rests on this failure. But is anything ever done about it in the Church?

And so it goes throughout the clergy where unless someone is charged with an offense, no recognition is given to those failures of vigilance that do most to undermine the confidence of even committed Catholics in the operations of the Church.

Yes, by all means let us cooperate fully with civil authorities, as is now happening more. Yes, by all means fix the rusty wheel that Canon Law is. But without the values to underpin the operation of the law – without transparency, accountability and the declaration of interest – the reform will be at best half-done.

Jesuit Fr Michael Kelly is executive director of ucanews.com

 

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