Pope Francis Kieran Tapsell
One of the main reasons for the Catholic Church shifting around abusive priests was because its disciplinary system was dysfunctional. Far more children were abused than would have occurred if it had a decent one. The Royal Commission made recommendations for change, and Pope Francis has adopted some of them, but he has retained two of the most harshly criticized canons.In its 2017 Final Report, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made recommendations for the reform of canon law, including the abolition of the pontifical secret over child sexual abuse by clergy, initiated by Pope Pius XI in 1922. In December 2019, Pope Francis abolished it.
The Royal Commission also criticized the canonical disciplinary system which made it virtually impossible for abusive priests to be dismissed. On 1 June 2021, when announcing the changes to that system in Book VI of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, a Vatican spokesman said, “In many places, punishments were mentioned only as a possibility, and the whole text gave the impression that it was almost merciless to apply punishments…Today…due to the examination of the abuse of minors, the atmosphere is different.”
Child Sexual Abuse as a “Moral Failure”
The Royal Commissioners were baffled by evidence given by Church leaders that they considered child sexual abuse to be just a “moral failure,” a view reflected and reinforced by the Code of Canon Law which included it in a section dealing with breaches of celibacy, as if it were no different to masturbation or a consensual affair with an adult. The Royal Commission’s Recommendation 16.9a was that child abuse should be “articulated as canonical crimes against the child, not as moral failings or as breaches of the ‘special obligation’ of clerics and religious to observe celibacy.” The Vatican has adopted this recommendation and has now listed child sexual abuse in the section for “offences against human life, dignity and liberty.”
Zero Tolerance of Child Sexual Abuse
The Royal Commission’s Recommendation 15.56 was that any person in religious ministry who is convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse should be dismissed from the priesthood or expelled from their religious order. The failure to dismiss priests was one of the things that survivors of child sexual abuse found particularly galling.
Pope Francis had several times claimed that both he and his predecessor had a policy of zero tolerance of child sexual abuse. This was not borne out by the Church’s own figures produced to the United Nations in 2014 which showed that only one quarter of all priests against whom findings of child sexual abuse were made had been dismissed from the priesthood. That’s 75% tolerance, not zero.
The Vatican has gone part of the way in adopting the Royal Commission’s recommendation. Canon 1398 now provides that anyone abusing a child or the mentally disabled, should be punished with deprivation of office, and “where the case calls for it, dismissal from the clerical state.” We may have to wait for another appearance of the Church before the United Nations to find out whether the dismissal rate has improved since 2014.