Monday, August 31, 2015

Kieran Tapsell on Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's Testimony Before Australian Abuse Commission: Vatican's Belief That Church Law Trumps Civil Law Is Big Obstacle for Commission

Highly recommended: Kieran Tapsell's conversation with Noel Debien of ABC Australia yesterday evening. Kieran Tapsell is an attorney and author of the book Potiphar's Wife: The Vatican's Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2014). In introducing Tapsell, Debien notes that the testimony last week of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson before the Australian Royal Commission about Sexual Abuse has gotten surprisingly little media coverage. I suspect this may be the case because, as I noted in my posting last Wednesday about Robinson's testimony, he was unsparing in his criticism of the silence of the powerful Pope John Paul II about the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, and he also stated bluntly that the popular Pope Francis has not provided real leadership for the church as it addresses this crisis.

In his discussion with Debien, Tapsell reads between the lines of Bishop Robinson's testimony, and points out that the Australian bishops — along with other bishops in other countries — could not address the abuse crisis effectively, when it began to come to their attention, because the Vatican had tied one hand behind their backs. Because the crisis deals with clerics, the Vatican insisted that all cases of clerical sexual abuse be referred specifically to the Vatican itself, and be treated as matters to be resolved by canon law — though canon law is frequently in conflict with civil law regarding sexual abuse of minors.

This strategy was crafted specifically by John Paul II and his right-hand man in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who chose to respond to the Irish Murphy Commission report by maintaining that bishops, and not the Vatican, were creating the problem of ineffective response to the abuse crisis, since bishops were not following canon law. Though Irish civil law requires that priests abusing minors be referred to Irish criminal officials and not to the Vatican, to be dealt with per canon law . . . . And though the Vatican has simultaneously sought to maintain that priests abusing minors are independent agents who are in no way under the control of the Vatican or even of their diocesan bishops . . . .

Complicating the problem was John Paul II's adamant determination to make it well-nigh impossible for priests to be laicized. As Tapsell notes, the Australian bishops (and bishops in other places) found it exceedingly difficult under John Paul II and Benedict XVI to remove from ministry priests they knew to be abusing children, due to this determination. 

At the heart of the abuse crisis is, as Tapsell insists, the insistence of the top leaders of the Catholic church on maintaining that church law trumps civil law when the two are in conflict. Tapsell concludes: 

This is going to be one of the big challenges for the Royal Commission, because in terms of referencing and looking at the systemic issues, there is nothing more systemic than law, whether it's canon law or civil law. And here you have a situation where effectively a foreign government is saying, "We will decide in the case of clerics whether or not they can stay clerics or not." This has the potential of creating an enormous conflict between church and state. I think what's going to happen is the state says, "Well, we don't care. We will decide whether he will be a priest or not. I think that's inevitable."

For excellent analysis and discussion of Tapsell's commentary, see this thread that Brian Coyne has started this morning at the Catholica site. (And in the American context, if you imagine for a moment that the reason the U.S. Catholic bishops are riding the "religious liberty" horse as hard as they can is not because they intend to assert their claims to be above the law of the land when it comes to running Catholic institutions and making decisions about what goes on in those institutions, you're rather naive.

The leaders of the Catholic church are continuing to fight a futile rearguard battle against modernity itself, insofar as they want to maintain that church law is "above" secular law and they are immune to secular law, as anointed priests of God.)

The photo of Kieran Tapsell is from this YouTube video (note: video link) at the Catholica channel, made in May 2014 when Tapsell launched Potiphar's Wife in Sydney.

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