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Published: 16 February 2017
Author: Kate Malone

Does Catholic Church law lead to the cover up of abuse?

Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse hearings

The current practices and procedures of the Catholic Church have been under intense scrutiny over the past two weeks of the Royal Commission’s Case Study 50. One of the interesting issues raised during evidence heard by the Commission has been the extent to which the Church’s own internal legal system, called canon law, impedes the proper reporting of child abuse. And in some instances actually leads to cover ups.

Does canon law conflict with state law?

Canon law is the body of laws that has been established over time to govern the church and its members.

According to the Church, where there are conflicts between canon law and civil law Catholics are obliged to follow canon law. Abuse of minors is a crime under both canon law and civil law, but it is the reporting of the abuse that differs between the two sets of laws. 

Former trainee priest and now lawyer, Kieran Tapsell, made lengthy submissions to the Commission during week 1 of the public hearing regarding the need for canon law to reflect civil law when it comes to reporting of historical child sexual abuse. 

Mr Tapsell criticised the so-called “pontifical secret”; the code of silence that applies to allegations of child sexual abuse by the clergy. He stated that this prevented bishops from reporting historic allegations of child sexual abuse to civil authorities in most of Australia.

A change for the good, but only in Victoria and NSW

During his evidence he noted the positive change in Victoria and New South Wales which saw comprehensive new laws be introduced that require the reporting of historical abuse, which according to an announcement in April 2010 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must be complied with by all bishops. 

These laws raised the accountability bar for bishops in Victoria and New South Wales but the law does not apply to rest of the nation. This means that bishops in other States and Territories  are still not obliged to report historical child sexual abuse to the police.

Is the Church putting itself above the law?

Mr Tapsell’s evidence offers yet another example of the Church effectively operating as a law unto themselves. Endorsing canon law over civil law that applies to lay people. This endorsement reinforces the notion that religious figures have an elevated status which puts them above the laws that the rest of society is obliged to respect.

As Mr Tapsell rightly notes in his submissions, allowing the church to internally handle allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy instead of reporting them the police has created an ingrained notion that such abuse is no longer a crime to be punished, but rather a “moral failure”.

Judges do not support a priest’s claim for special treatment

At Ryan Carlisle Thomas we have seen Catholic priests accused of child sexual abuse attempting to apply to civil courts for the suppression of their names during civil legal proceedings on the basis that the release of their name jeopardises their role as spiritual advisors.

Despite these attempts, in refusing their application for pseudonym, judges have reinforced that priests and other religious authorities should not be granted pseudonym orders on the basis that they hold an elevated or special role in society.

It’s time canon law fell into step with civil law

As the Commission highlighted last week, the time has come for canon law to fall into line with civil law to ensure that clergy members are held accountable for their crimes in the same way that lay people are held accountable for theirs. This would no doubt help to stamp out the deep-seated mindset that clergy have of themselves as being above or at least outside the law.

The public hearing continues.

You can follow our commentary on proceedings here throughout the hearing.

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