Dublin sex abuse: the perils of ignoring canon law
Paragraph 1.15 of the devastating Murphy Commission's report into the cover-up of clerical sex abuse of minors by bishops says it all:
The Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State.
Thursday's 720-page report asked why church leaders in the Dublin Archdiocese, home to a quarter of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, did not inform public authorities about a single abuse complaint against a priest until 1995. Yet from the early 1970s until that time, four archbishops compiled confidential files on more than 100 parish priests who had sexually abused children since 1940. Not one of them was prosecuted under canon or civil law.
The complicity of public officials went deep. Rather than take action on the allegations, the Gardai preferred to do nothing or to trust the Church to deal with it behind closed doors. But the Church did not deal with it. Chapter 4 of the Report documents a “collapse of respect for canon law in archdiocesan circles ... offenders were neither prosecuted nor made accountable within the Church”. Only two canonical trials ever took place in the 30-year period under investigation, both in the 1990s and in the teeth of the opposition of one of the most powerful canonists in the archdiocese, Mgr Sheehy, who “actually considered that the penal aspects of that law should rarely be invoked”. Mgr Sheehy, the report adds later, "rejected the view that the Archdiocese had any responsibility to report child sexual abuse to the state authorities. He thought the Church's internal processes should be used but, in fact, he was totally opposed to the use of the Church penal process."
The real scandal, therefore, was not only that the Church failed always to inform public authorities -- it is a moot question whether public authorities at the time had the will to prosecute priests, so great was the deference to clergy -- but that the Church failed to apply its own canonical procedures.
Canon law is not "soft" on clerical abusers, as some newspaper reports imply. Nor is it an alternative to the civil process, as if this were a means of evading civil law. Canon law --both the 1917 Code, and the revised one of 1983 -- demands that following an allegation a bishop investigate, and if true, expel the abuser from the priesthood, a public act of repudiation of the abuser which reflects the gravity of the offence. The report acknowledges this recourse in the Church's law, and damns bishops and canonists for casting it aside:
The Commission is satisfied that Church law demanded serious penalties for clerics who abused children. In Dublin from the 1970s onwards this was ignored; the highest priority was the protection of the reputation of the institution and the reputation of priests. The moving around of offending clerics with little or no disclosure of their past is illustrative of this.
Why was canon law ignored? This is one of the burning questions behind the clerical sex abuse scandal. There was undoubtedly a suspicion of legalism in the 1970s-80s; the knowledge at that period that canon law was to be updated to reflect the Second Vatican Council led to a widespread belief that the 1917 Code was in abeyance. By the time the 1983 Code was eventually promulgated, an anti-legalist mindset had set in, and bishops preferred therapy to sanctions. Few knew how to conduct a canonical trial, and diocesan tribunals seldom dealt with anything other than marriage annulments.
Now it is too late. Instead of setting an example to civil law, canon law has shown itself to be inadequate in dealing with some of the most serious crimes that can be committed by a priest. The Church has been forced to renounce its proper jurisdiction.
The right-wing critics have a point when they criticize the postconciliar Church for its anti-legalistic mindset. But clerical sex abuse crisis has a strong preconciliar element to it -- not just the fact that the abuser priests had been trained in preconcilar seminaries, but also the persistence of a societas perfecta model of Church which flew in the face of postconciliar ecclesiogy. It was the combination of that preconciliar mentality --that the Church is a society unto itself, floating freely and apart from the society in which it operated -- with postconciliar ignorance of and hostility to the law that has proved so fatal in Dublin, as elsewhere.
The purgation which our bishops have undergone ensures that the societas perfecta mentality is all but dead now. No one can argue, after the clerical sex abuse crisis, that the Church automatically has a superior moral claim by virtue of being the Church. But will the law be restored? That challenge remains.