Church still incapable of saying there is no excuse for a priest abusing a child

They may have attracted positive PR for the Church, but the new measures for dealing with clerical abuse are a million miles away from being good enough
Church still incapable of saying there is no excuse for a priest abusing a child

Pope Francis listens to Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle during a Mass to mark 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Picture: Tiziana Fabi/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

I don’t know whether he lacks the will or the courage, or whether he is incapable of asserting real and moral authority. I don’t know whether he has been undermined from within, or is just an old man incapable of seeing anything resembling a bigger picture.

I don’t know whether he or the people around him still regard the institution as more important than the people it is supposed to serve, but sometimes abuses. Or maybe it’s just — and I don’t know the answer to this either — he and those around him think we’re all fools.

Whatever the answer to those questions, I don’t believe it is possible to read the most recent changes to canon law — the law of the Catholic Church — without feeling utterly let down by Pope Francis. The Pope who promised so much, but has changed as little as possible.

I’m not a Catholic, but I know the importance of the Church, and its power for good (or evil) in the world. Reading the Pope’s pronouncements this past week is like feeling conned and cheated by someone for whom you had a genuine feeling of respect.

Mind you, it has to be admitted that the Pope and his people do good public relations. 

When the changes in canon law were announced last week, the RTÉ News website headlined it “Pope updates canon law to address paedophilia by priests”. The Irish Times used language such as “sweeping reform” and “the most extensive revision in four decades”.

And that was just here. “Pope widens Church law to target sexual abuse of adults by priests and laity,” said The New York Times. The BBC had “Vatican laws changed to toughen sexual abuse punishment”.

Mission accomplished, you might say. At last, the Catholic Church is getting to grips with its past. Everyone interested in reporting on the story was told that this was the result of years of intensive work — 11 years in the preparation, inputs from senior lawyers including experts in criminal law. It could hardly be more thorough, more far-reaching, more exhaustive, more reforming.

And then you read it, and you realise it’s codswallop.

The world that takes child abuse seriously introduced mandatory reporting years ago. Here in Ireland — and despite our history we weren’t the quickest — the law on mandatory reporting places special responsibilities on people who have the experience and expertise to help to protect children from harm. We have laws that explicitly recognise different kinds of abuse as crimes. Many of us in Ireland had to campaign to get the legislation, called Children First, into place. But it’s there now, and it’s strong.

These much-vaunted changes in canon law, on the other hand, can’t bring themselves to use words such as mandatory reporting at all. Or even the words child abuse. The document I read, which runs to 21 pages and has about 8,000 words, does not even mention the word 'child' — except in one bit where it declares it an offence for a family to allow its children to be baptised in a non-Catholic religion.

Offences and punishment

Don’t get me wrong — there are loads of offences, and different kinds of punishment. There are offences against the faith and the unity of the Church, and against Church authorities (these seem to be really serious). There are offences against the sacraments (the person who admits a woman to the priesthood is automatically excommunicated!), and there are loads more.

Sexual offences against children are grouped under the heading 'Offences against human life, dignity, and liberty'. Throughout, children are referred to as 'minors' — I don’t know why the document is so reluctant to just call them children.

According to this heading, priests are guilty of an offence in this section if they “commit an offence against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue” with a child. I googled the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue, just to be sure. As I thought, it’s the one that says: “thou shalt not commit adultery”. So far so good, I suppose.

The changes then go on to list other offences committed against a child by a priest or a member of a religious order, in respect of which the penalty is described as loss of office, and sometimes (even!) dismissal from the priesthood. These offences (which I gather are new) include the grooming of a 'minor' to expose himself or herself or to take part in pornographic activity, and the collection and distribution of pornographic images of 'minors'.

Bear in mind that although the penalty can include removal from the priesthood, it doesn’t explicitly say anywhere that the priest involved can be sent to jail (it is implied in some sections of the document).

But there is another clause, and it undermines everything else in the document.

How penalties are to be applied

There are a number of laws which deal with how penalties are to be applied. One of them — Article 1324 — says that penalties must be reduced if the perpetrator was drunk, acting in the heat of passion, or was “gravely and unjustly” provoked.

When you read words such as this, you suddenly realise what Enda Kenny meant in that famous speech 10 years ago, after the publication of the report into clerical abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne. He made it clear in that speech that he was speaking as a practising Catholic, and referring to the ongoing cover-up of abuse, he said: “Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s ‘ear of the heart’, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.” 

Gimlet eye indeed. How is it possible in any sane world for a Pope and his Church to seek to command authority when, on the one hand, they are claiming to have strengthened canon law to protect children from abusers and, on the other, they write in so many get-out clauses to protect the abuser?

There is no court in the democratic world where a person accused of abusing a child can admit the offence and still escape punishment by claiming to have been under the control of alcohol or responding to provocation by the child.

Yet the language of 1324 is clear and explicit. 

Penalties must be reduced, or replaced by a penance, if the abuser can claim provocation. 

Penance, by the way, is defined in the articles as “the performance of some work of religion or piety or charity”.

How do you claim provocation? How do you deny it? How is it even possible for a priest, with years of training and experience, to be “provoked” into committing an abusive act against a child? How can language like that be allowed to stand in a document that has allegedly taken the best minds of the Vatican a decade to prepare? How is it not possible for the Church to say, in its fundamental law, that there is simply no excuse whatever for the abuse of a child by a priest?

If this is really the best the Vatican can do, despite the spin when it was released, it’s a million miles away from being good enough. It proves only one thing. Where the Church is concerned, nothing ever really changes.

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