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Opinion: Is the Catholic Church still covering up child sex abuse on the grounds that it is a 'pontifical secret'?

The summit heard that the canon law protection of ‘pontifical secret’ had been applied to numerous clerical abuse cases. Bizarrely, it was suggested that this practice should not continue – indicating that it is ongoing. writes Shane Dunphy.

Shane Dunphy

FOR A WHILE, I thought Pope Francis was a good man.

I was quite moved when he comforted a child who had been told one of his parents was going to hell due to his atheism, telling him a loving God would never do such a thing.

He spoke openly about reforming the monolith the Roman Church has become, and I was delighted. Here, I thought, was the kind of leader the church needed in the 21st century.

But alas, the mask quickly began to slip.

During his visit to Ireland, be claimed to be hearing about the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes for the first time.

He asserted that the physical punishment of children is acceptable “as long as it is done with love”. As someone who was beaten regularly by priests during my education, I deeply question what kind of love was involved, and he has stated that people who continuously criticise the church are “friends of the devil”.

Pope Francis apologised for that final comment, protesting that he was simply referencing a passage in the Bible but how often have the religious used biblical interpretation to support their worst offences?

I grew up in an intensely religious family. My mother went to Mass daily, and we said prayers every evening after dinner. I loved the ritual and the colour and the majesty of the church, and I revelled in the stories. 

I still use John’s Gospel as an example of one of the best opening lines ever written: “In the beginning was the Word.” As a writer, there is something enchanting in that idea.

Despite all this, I have come to believe wholeheartedly that the machine that is the Roman Catholic Church has had its day and must be shut down.

I want to be clear about what I am saying here: I have no argument with the religion itself – one of my core beliefs is that people should be free to follow whichever creed they feel helps them get through the day, so long as it does not impose on anyone else’s rights or freedoms.

What I want to see demolished is the human, financial and political mechanism which has, for centuries, been the institutional embodiment of Roman Catholicism, enforcing its will and influence on the world, often to the detriment and oppression of huge swathes of the populations it professes to serve.

It is an organisation that has proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, to be utterly corrupt, institutionally and irrepressibly criminal.
It has caused the kind of misery one could only equate with a political dictatorship or maybe more accurately a highly organised and successful international criminal gang.

And not just in the dim and distant past – it is still happening today.

A good example of this absurdity was witnessed in last week’s Vatican Summit on Clerical Abuse.

That it was the first gathering of its kind for an organisation that has been plagued by this most heinous of criminal actions for hundreds of years, (there is a piece of Brehon Law dating back to the 12th century which outlines how priests who have sex with pre-adolescent boys should be dealt with) is mind-boggling, but better late than never.

During the summit, we heard some remarkable things.

It was admitted that files relating to clerics who were known to be abusing children were either not created at all, or were destroyed to prevent them from falling into the hands of the public.

There was mention that the canon law protection of ‘pontifical secret’ had been applied to numerous clerical abuse cases, meaning it was considered a mortal sin to reveal these facts under any circumstances – the breaching of this would result in automatic excommunication.

Bizarrely, it was suggested that this practice should not continue, indicating that it is ongoing.

The main proposal coming out of the summit was that a handbook is to be drawn up for bishops to aid them in their handling of clerical sexual abuse – meaning that such guidance currently does not exist.

Nowhere was there a mention of zero tolerance, or the handing over to the police of bishops and Vatican hierarchy who have been instrumental in the sheltering and protection of serial predators for years.

Activist groups the world over declared the summit to be all sound and no action.

Francis Rocca, the Wall Street Journal’s Vatican correspondent, went so far as to tell RTE’s Drivetime programme that in his experience the Catholic Church globally does not see clerical abuse in the same way we do in Ireland, deeming it to be something that is “certainly a bad thing, but forgivable, even given a second chance”.

This was brought home to me in the wake of the summit when I was contacted by a member of a support group for survivors of clerical abuse.

He mentioned a convicted clerical abuser whose name I was aware of and informed me that this individual, though now defrocked, is still working for the church, he is now a community worker and continues to live rent-free in a house owned by the diocese.

He also told me that this particular person currently has seven different charges of abuse – some historical and some much more recent – pending against him.

Yet the church is still financially supporting him and has facilitated his remaining in a position where he has ready access to children and vulnerable adults.

I did my research, and discovered that every word of this was was true.

The police, when I called about it, told me they were well aware of this particular person’s presence in the area where he works and resides, and that he is being carefully watched.

I’m not sure how much of a comfort that is.

In light of everything I have just written, I have a proposal. It’s a simple one but I think it might be very effective.

The Church has admitted to institutional levels of criminality, so why then don’t we treat it as a criminal organisation?

We know that a vast portion of the church’s wealth in Ireland was earned off the back of women held against their will and forced to work as slaves, not to mention the trafficking of children out of the country to wealthy families abroad for vast sums of money in illegal adoptions.

I propose we hand the matter over to the Criminal Assets Bureau. They can freeze all church accounts, seize their assets and use the resultant funds to make appropriate recompense to the many, many people whose lives have been ruined through their callous and abusive treatment.

I do not believe this is an excessive stance. The argument that, as a society, we colluded with the church and therefore should share the blame holds no water.

We used to burn village midwives as witches – that doesn’t mean we should shrug and turn a blind eye if someone were to do so today.

As a culture and a community, we have moved on, while the institutional church has remained solidly entrenched.

The revelation that they are still covering up child sex abuse on the grounds that it is a pontifical secret should be the final straw. 

That the Catholic Church continues to hold itself up as a moral guardian really beggars belief.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

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Shane Dunphy

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