Canon Law Was Not the Problem

Neglect of canon law, not adherence to it, contributed to the covering up of child abuse by Irish priests.

“Catholic bishops covered up abuse by priests because they relied on canon law rather than the civil law”—it’s a familiar line in the media and from politicians when bishops or religious superiors have been shown to have mishandled abuse allegations. This side of the Atlantic, at least, it’s hard to have a conversation about the issue without this claim being raised—even by faithful Catholics.

It is, of course, true that many bishops did grievously fail children and the Catholic community at large by failing to respond properly to allegations of abuse against priests and religious. However, on closer inspection it becomes obvious that at the heart of the crisis was not only a failure to report a crime to the civil authorities, but also a failure to apply the Church’s own rules, rather than an overreliance on canon law.

Revealing new statistics published by the Archdiocese of Dublin in May offer a decade-by-decade breakdown of when abuse reported to Irish authorities is alleged to have occurred.

The analysis of allegations of abuse made against 98 priests of the archdiocese over a 70-year period shows that the alleged abuse began to skyrocket in the 1960s. Approximately 2 percent of accused priests are alleged to have abused in the 1940s, 4 percent in the 1950s, 23 percent in the 1960s, 27 percent in the 1970s, 34 percent in the 1980s, 9 percent in the 1990s, and 1 percent in the 2000s.

This is very similar to the pattern found in other countries. What explains the fact that the problem became so bad in that particular period—the 1960s to the 80s?

It’s an issue Pope Benedict XVI referred to in his 2010 book-length interview Light of the World. When asked about the effects of the mishandling of abuse worldwide, it was to Dublin that the Holy Father looked for an answer: “The Archbishop of Dublin told me something very interesting about that,” the Pope said, referring to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. “He said that ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect—there is much to criticize about it—but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-60s, however, it was simply not applied any more.”

But it isn’t just Church authorities who have pointed out that ecclesiastical law offered the means to deal with abuse allegations, though this was often ignored by bishops and religious superiors.

One of the most comprehensive inquiries into the handling of allegations of abuse against priests was carried out by Judge Yvonne Murphy over several years in the Archdiocese of Dublin. Her report—published by the Irish government in 2009—made for devastating reading. It also offered a rare glimpse into the culture in which abuse was so badly mishandled. The report summarizes the main factors behind the Church’s disastrous mismanagement of the scandals until sometime around the mid-1990s.
It blames this mismanagement on “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets.”

And there is no doubt that all of these factors are to blame. But they don’t tell the whole story. If they did, abuse allegations should be more evenly distributed over time. After all, the Church has probably always been concerned with secrecy, the protection of its reputation, and the preservation of its assets. So something different must have been going on from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The Murphy Report makes it clear that canon law was not the problem that many have assumed it was. In fact, the problem of child abuse by clerics was made worse by the reckless actions of Church officials who simply refused to implement canon law. The opening pages of the Murphy Commission report explicitly state that Church law refers to the abuse of a minor as the “worst crime.”

As the commission wrote: “There is a 2,000-year history of biblical, papal, and Holy See statements showing awareness of clerical child sexual abuse…. Over the centuries, strong denunciation of clerical child sexual abuse came from popes, Church councils, and other Church sources. These denunciations are particularly strong on ‘offences against nature’ and ‘offences committed with or against juveniles.’”

The 1917 Code of Canon Law, for example, “decreed deprivation of office and/or benefice, or expulsion from the clerical state for such offences,” the report notes. The commission goes on to report that “in the 20th century, two separate documents on dealing with child sexual abuse were promulgated by Vatican authorities.” The documents, says the commission, were “little observed in Dublin.”

The report also notes that in Dublin “the Church authorities failed to implement most of their own canon law rules on dealing with clerical child sexual abuse.” In a vindication of the law of the universal Church, the report notes: “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 report goes on: “Canon law provides the Church authorities with a means not only of dealing with offending clergy, but also with a means of doing justice to victims, including paying compensation to them.”

So what exactly went wrong?

The Pope offers a further explanation in Light of the World: “the prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people.”

Judge Murphy’s report in Dublin backs up the Pope’s assessment and makes clear that at some point in the 1960s the Church stopped imposing those punishments on priests. It also makes clear why this happened.

Judge Murphy noted that canon law “suffered an enormous loss of confidence in the 1960s and seems to have fallen into disuse.”

She adds: “The Commission heard evidence from canon law experts that the status of canon law as an instrument of Church governance declined hugely during Vatican II and in the decades immediately after it.”

Murphy quotes canon law expert Msgr. John Dolan, to the effect that during this period the belief took hold that canon law put legalism and authority ahead of compassion and the needs of individuals.

“This development is perhaps not unrelated to broader developments in western society, featuring an increased emphasis on the rights of individuals and an attitude of suspicion of ‘heavy’ regulation or control.”

This gets to the crux of the problem and leads one to the conclusion that had the punitive provisions of canon law not been abandoned in the 1960s, the problem of child abuse by priests would not have surged in the way it did in that decade and into the 1980s.

For David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, the report’s findings about canon law are crucial.

“What we see in the report is a rejection of canon law by more liberal elements within the Church,” he said. “From the 1960s onwards the Church’s penal process is virtually abandoned in Dublin and a purely therapeutic approach to the issue of sexual abuse by priests is adopted.”

According to Quinn, “within liberal elements canon law began to be discredited and this has wreaked the most terrible havoc.”

“What’s clear is that an attempt to correct an excessive legalism in the Church pre-Vatican II led to an opposite extreme where the laws of the Church became so disrespected in some circles that it was impossible to enforce them,” Quinn added.

The general disrespect for Church law is made clear time and time again in the Murphy Report. In one section, the commission notes the case of a Father Vidal (this is a pseudonym) who admitted to abusing young girls and to being engaged in an ongoing sexual relationship that began when the girl in question was just 13 years old. By the time the girl reached her early 20s, Father Vidal decided to marry her and applied for laicization.

However, before his laicization process got underway, Father Vidal was illicitly and invalidly married to the girl in a Catholic ceremony by one of his fellow priests. When the marriage broke up five years later, he seamlessly returned to ministry and, to avoid public scandal, was transferred from the Dublin archdiocese to the Diocese of Sacramento, California. The US diocese was never informed of Father Vidal’s past.

In Light of the World, Pope Benedict is clear about what the answer is to the problems of clerical abuse that have plagued the Church around the world: “today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.”

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About Michael Kelly 29 Articles
Michael Kelly is editor of the Irish Catholic, Ireland's best-selling religious newspaper.