Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pope's silence undermines his credibility

Pope's silence undermines his credibility
Sat, Mar 27, 2010

Aspects of the papal letter are welcome, but Rome’s role in cover-up must be admitted, writes GARRET FITZGERALD

A NUMBER of features of the pastoral letter from Pope Benedict XVI are to be welcomed warmly. For in it a clear effort is made to atone for past failures of the Catholic Church, recognising and responding to the horror created by the revelation of widespread clerical abuse of children, which we now know involved several hundred priests and brothers here during the past half century.

The pope’s deep upset at these events is evident: “I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel . . . I can only share in the dismay and sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced.” And he shows particular sensitivity to the isolation of victims who were courageous enough to speak out when no one would listen.

To the vast majority of innocent priests he says he is “aware that in some people’s eyes you are tainted by association . . . Many of you are disappointed, bewildered and angered by the way these matters have been handled by some of your superiors.”

But several less sensitive, and I think irrelevant, notes are also sounded, which seem to reflect hobby horses of his own. Blaming “the rapid transformation and secularisation of Irish society” for these crimes is not convincing. First of all, clerical abuse predated the process of secularisation – and it was in fact the very absence of secularisation that postponed its exposure. It is also unconvincing to imply that Vatican II bears some kind of responsibility for child abuse.

While the laity, and the vast majority of priests, knew nothing of the scale of clerical abuse, bishops did not share that ignorance. Until about 15 years ago they did not report such crimes to the civil authorities. Instead, abusing clerics were shunted around to other parishes, extending their vicious practices to an ever-widening number of children. It is difficult to understand how anyone with even the most minimal sense of moral responsibility could have acted in such a way, and no one has tried to explain how bishops, of all people, came to do so.

Part of the difficulty of explaining how this cover-up came about lies in the obscurity of many canon law provisions – and in at least one case the secrecy surrounding one such papal text. At least from its 1917 codification onwards, one part of canon law has related to internal church issues such as abuses of sacraments or the violation of confessional secrecy. These were seen as matters for church tribunals to deal with privately, applying to them “pontifical secrecy”, which involves the taking of an oath to preserve secrecy on the investigation of these matters by church tribunals, on pain of excommunication.

It is not clear to me when clerical child abuse, through the confessional or otherwise, was first included with the sacramental issues dealt with in this part of canon law. This is because a relevant papal document of 1962 was issued to bishops only, who were required to – and did – keep this edict absolutely secret. What we do know, however, is that, whenever this issue was first included in this part of canon law, the pontifical secret procedure was applied to it too. We know this because as late as 2001, the present pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, secured the promulgation by Pope John Paul II of Sacramentorum Sanctitatis , requiring all child abuse cases with a semblance of truth to be referred by bishops to the Congregation. And, in paragraph 25 of that document, Ratzinger himself provided that this new procedure would continue to be “subject to the pontifical secret”.

It is clear that until the mid-1990s the Irish bishops interpreted pontifical secrecy as precluding the reporting of child abuses to the Garda – a stance which they dropped only in the mid-1990s, under huge pressure from public opinion.

As for swearing children to secrecy about their abuse, it is not clear to me whether this is required or even permitted by canon law, but under canon law I believe they cannot be subject to a threat of excommunication.

But the main point I want to make in this article is that the failure of the pope to advert to, and to express regret for, the role of Rome, and for his own role as a cardinal in the handling of this matter up to 2001, is open to criticism. The bishops’ failure to report child abuse to the Garda prior to the mid-1990s clearly reflected their understanding of pontifical secrecy. They obviously believed that by acting in this way they were obeying Rome. That does not excuse their inaction – but it does help to explain it.

Given that background, our bishops may feel a little sore about some of the language used in the pope’s letter in which he refers to the “often inadequate response of the ecclesiastical authorities”. And in his remarks addressed to the bishops themselves he said: “It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed at times grievously to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse.” The trouble was that the bishops were in fact applying these norms – including the pontifical secrecy provision, which as late as 2001 the pope had himself provided should continue to be applied to child abuse cases.

The silence of the pope on his own role in this matter weakens the credibility of an otherwise worthy pastoral letter. Unless this failure is addressed it could undermine the authority of the Holy See not just in Ireland but also in other countries, such as Germany, where clerical child abuse is currently emerging into the light of day.

© 2010 The Irish Times

No comments: