The gimlet eye of the canon lawyer has been busy in the Vatican as publication of the Holy See’s response to the Irish Government regarding the Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne reveals every effort to continue to find ways for the Holy See to absolve itself of any responsibility for the cover up of the sexual abuse of children by priests for decades from one side of the world to the other.
It has been widely reported in recent months that Irish Catholic Bishops were frustrated in their attempts to implement their own child protection guidelines (1996 Framework Document) because the Congregation of the Clergy in the Vatican only considered those guidelines to be a study document. It is interesting to note from today’s Holy See response that members of the Catholic Hierarchy in Ireland also shared the view that those guidelines were not binding on them at all, the only people who seemed to think that Catholic Bishops were implementing child protection guidelines were the Irish Government and the Irish people, and it was disingenuous of Bishops to give that false impression in 1996 and allow it to continue and develop over the following years.
The Holy See continues to insist that the 1997 letter from the Congregation of the Clergy in the Vatican to the Irish Catholic Bishops did not forbid reporting of allegations to civil authorities. This continues to be completely untrue. The 1997 letter makes it very clear that such reporting gives rise to serious reservations of a canonical nature and that the procedures established by the Code of Canon Law must be meticulously followed. Such procedures make no mention of reporting the sexual abuse of children by priests to civil authorities.
The response from the Holy See refers to the absence of mandatory reporting in Irish law. Such absence does not excuse the lengths Catholic Bishops went to conceal known child sexual abuse and to protect and reassign abusers. Nor does it excuse the way Catholic Bishops misled people into thinking they were implementing child protection guidelines when clearly they were not.
It is worthy of note too that while the Holy See has taken note of the Irish Government’s intention to introduce legislation making it a ‘criminal offence to withhold information about a serious offence against a child’, it states that the prescriptions of civil law should always be followed, but it includes the qualification ‘without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum’.
Regardless of the Holy See’s reservations or observations what is important now is the child protection legislation being prepared by both the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence. The wording of such legislation will be very important and every effort must be made to ensure that no undue, unnecessary or unworthy exceptions are facilitated.