Nothing Hypothetical about Papal Persecution

By Julian Porteous
The Australian
September 22, 2010

GEOFFREY Robertson has joined a vindictive campaign against the Pope and the church, says Julian Porteous.

GEOFFREY Robertson QC is a barrister of international standing and a capable media personality. On the basis of his public reputation, his new book, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse, no doubt timed to coincide with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain for the beatification of John Henry Newman, deserves a response.

The book exhibits many errors of fact and dramatic and false claims that need correcting. Robertson is known to be polemical in style but polemics cannot excuse inaccuracy.

Robertson claims: "While there can be no objection to an organisation disciplining members for a breach of arcane rules, there is every objection when those breaches amount to serious crimes and the organisation claims the right to deal with them internally without reporting them to the police"(The Sydney Morning Herald, September 9). This comment needs to be challenged.

First, does the church protect pedophile priests? No. In the church's first Code of Canon Law, published in 1917, sexual offences against children were considered crimes and the church provided processes to punish those crimes. Revision of the code in 1983 gave bishops the tools needed to deal with these crimes. In recent years, in light of the focus on sexual crimes committed by priests against children, the church has continued to issue laws designed to protect children and to punish offenders. One example is that the age of consent has been raised from 16 to 18. In other words, any sexual contact between a priest and anyone under the age of 18 is a crime. In 2002, pope John Paul II transferred the jurisdiction to prosecute these crimes from local bishops to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was then under the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger. This signalled a new commitment on the part of the church and Ratzinger to deal with this terrible crime and remove any offending priest from ministry.

Robertson's assertion regarding the church's response to these crimes, that the church "claims the right to deal with them internally without reporting them to the police", is a distortion of reality. The church deals with these crimes using its own laws and procedures, but it does not claim an exclusive jurisdiction. The church accepts that the state has competence to deal with the crimes of clerics when they breach civil law. The church's purpose in conducting its internal processes is to protect the community by removing the priest from his ministry; the state's purpose is also to protect the community but it will do so by imposing a sentence of imprisonment. From the church's perspective, both systems of law work together for the good of the community.

Does the church, however, protect clerics, as Robertson argues? Tragically, this may have happened in individual cases but for many years the church in countries such as Australia and the US has encouraged victims of clerical abuse to take the issue to civil authorities to have it investigated by the police and then brought before a civil court. Some victims, however, choose not to go to the police and ask the church to investigate the crime.

The church, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has affirmed the importance of crimes being reported to the police.

The church will continue to deal with the crimes of priests against children and young people internally so as to be able to remove offending priests from ministry for the protection of children and the good of the church. The church cannot impose the sorts of penalties that the state's criminal law provides for such crimes. It has very limited capacity to coerce an offending priest. The church can, for example, impose an order on a priest to live in a certain place but cannot compel him to do so.

Where a crime against a child has been established using the church's canon law, the case is referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and that priest will be removed from the priesthood and will no longer be able to minister on behalf of the church. That is a very serious outcome for a priest, but it's quite different to a prison sentence that the state can impose. When Robertson states that this is "no punishment worthy of that name", he seems to have no understanding of just how serious this outcome is for a priest. In most cases the priest will also be dealt with and punished by civil law.

Robertson claims: "Canon law has no sex offenders' registry." Perhaps not in the way in which such registries exist in various civil jurisdictions, but the church co-operates with civil law in screening anyone who may be in touch with children at a parish or school level.

Robertson has joined a cacophony of shrill criticism of the Pope. This is embarrassing to some fellow secular humanists such as Brendan O'Neill. Writing on the Spiked website (September 7), he says he has no intention of holding a candle for the church, but adds: "These Pope-protesters threaten to drain the last drop of decency from old-fashioned humanism, turning a once principled outlook into little more than a requirement to hate religion."


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