Tapsell Child Sexual Abuse
Author: Kieran Tapsell
Historically, the Church’s canon law for 1500 years reflected a serious and consistent attitude to child sexual abuse. It was always a sin, but by the 4th century the Church started to regard it as a crime punishable in this life. The first Church law against the sexual abuse of boys was passed at the Council of Elvira in 306CE. 1 St. Basil of Caesarea, the fourth century Church Father, (330-379CE) and the main author of the monastic rule of the Eastern Church, instructed that a cleric or monk who sexually molests youths or boys is to be publically whipped, his head shaved, spat upon, kept in prison for six months in chains on a diet of bread and water, and after release is to be always subject to supervision and kept out of contact with young people. 2 Leaving out such antiquated punishments as whipping, spitting and head shaving, St. Basil seems remarkably modern in his demand for imprisonment, and for his understanding that sex abusers are often recidivists, and some form of restriction and supervision is needed. For the next seven or eight centuries, there was little separation between Church and State, but the Church still regarded the sex abuse of children as deserving more punishment than simply dismissing priests from the priesthood. In the 12th century Church and State started drifting apart, and that is when we see a series of papal and Council decrees requiring clergy guilty of serious crimes to be stripped of their status as priests and handed over to the civil authority for punishment. 3 Sometimes that resulted in execution.
In 1904, Pope Pius X decided to create a code of canon law out of the 10,000 or so papal and council decrees. He appointed a commission headed by Cardinal Gasparri whose assistant was Eugenio Pacelli, the later Pope Pius XII. The Commission discarded the decrees that required clergy who were guilty of serious crimes to be handed over to the State for further punishment. The 1917 Code of Canon Law provided that those who sexually abused children are to be “suspended”, “declared infamous”, “deprived of any office”, and in more “serious” cases shall be dismissed.5 There was no suggestion that they be reported to the civil authorities, let alone be handed over. Five years later, in 1922, Pope Pius XI issued the instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, and these requirements were watered down. There would be no more declarations of “infamy”, and the requirement to dismiss for “more serious cases” had become one where dismissal was available only where there was an impossibility of reforming the priest. These crimes were now to be kept secret, and the secret of the Holy Office, a permanent silence, was imposed on all information obtained by the Church in its internal investigations and trials.6 Breach of the secret incurred automatic excommunication, and this excommunication could only be lifted by the Pope personally.7 There were many reasons for this change in attitude, which I have explained in the book:
1. The idea that the priest was ontologically changed by God was gaining in popularity within the Church. In 1905, a French priest, John Vianney who proclaimed that after God, the priest is everything was beatified and he was canonized in 1925.8 You can find concrete expression of this theology in the attempts by the Vatican around the 1920s and thereafter to negotiate concordats with sympathetic Catholic countries whereby convicted priests would not spend time in jail like everyone else, but in monasteries. 9
2. The Church had become obsessed with the loss of faith through “scandal” and this could be spread by the new invention of radio. The first commercial licence for a radio station was issued in 1920. One solution to the scandal problem was to cut off the information at its source. 3. By 1922, there had been decades of anti-clericalism in Europe starting from the time of the Reformation and the French Revolution.10 In 1922, the Church may have had some legitimate reasons to fear that in some countries priests may not receive a fair trial. The fact is however, that from that time onwards there was an official policy of cover up of child sexual abuse amongst clergy. It was enshrined in canon law, and it continued long after any of these anti-clericalist problems had disappeared. The pontifical secret over allegations of child sexual abuse was confirmed and expanded by another 5 Popes after Pius XI. Pius XII, one of the architects of the 1917 Code, continued Crimen Sollicitationis. In 1962 John XXIII revised and expanded it to cover priests who were members of religious orders. 11 In 1974 Paul VI issued the instruction Secreta Continere which replaced the secret of the Holy Office with the pontifical secret, the Church’s top secret classification, and extended it to cover even the allegation. There were no exceptions for reporting the crime to the civil authorities.12