The pontifical secret

Richard Ackland explains about canon law in the Sydney Morning Herald. Why is the story always the same, always a matter of “protection of clergy against whom allegations of paedophilia have been made and giving victims the most incredible run-around”?

Why has the church taken that course of action instead of expelling these creepy “groomers and touchers” and sending them off to the police with a file note listing all the complaints against them?

It is puzzling, until you read Kieran Tapsell’s just published book, Potiphar’s Wife.

Tapsell is a retired Sydney lawyer who also studied for the priesthood, with canon law as his special interest – and it is here that he locates the problem.

You have to go back to the book of Genesis to work out who Potiphar and his wife were. Mrs Potiphar must have been the first recorded person to have accused her victim of rape, after unsuccessfully trying to seduce him.

Or perhaps she is in one of the first stories – told by men – of women who accuse their victims of rape after trying to seduce them. It’s a popular story. Gee I wonder why that might be.

Anyway. The church used to kick rapey priests out and hand them over to the state for punishment.

It was not until 1904 that Pope Pius X created a commission with the job of unifying the canon law code and tossing out unwanted bits. One of the discarded decrees was the one requiring priests who abused children to be sacked and prosecuted.

In 1922, Pope Pius XI issued Crimen Sollicitationis, which imposed the secret of the holy office. Priests who were meddlesome in the worst ways imaginable were to be kept under wraps.

This was subsequently confirmed in 1962. In 1974 the “secret of the holy office” was rebadged as the “pontifical secret”.

It was confirmed again in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. Later Benedict XVI (the German pope) conveniently declared the secrecy provisions extended to allegations of priests having sex with intellectually disabled people.

It must be so convenient to be able to pass your own laws that are the opposite of the real laws, and be able to follow your special laws instead of the real laws, and get away with it.

The response of the Vatican to the report of the Irish commission of investigation into priestly abuse of children, headed by Judge Yvonne Murphy, was instructive.

Benedict XVI had given the Dublin report “careful study” and was “deeply disturbed” by its contents.

Three months later, the Pope released a pastoral letter in which he laid the blame at the feet of the Irish bishops for not applying “the long established norms of canon law”.

Yet it was those very norms of secrecy that the bishops had sworn to uphold to protect abusing priests.

Certainly, there was no mention in the pastoral letter that the canon law was largely responsible for protecting these abusers. Nor was there any suggestion that this particular part of the code would be abolished, including the bit that makes it almost impossible to dismiss a priest without the priest’s consent.

The church does what it likes.


  1. Al Dente says

    We make the rules, we enforce the rules and if you don’t like the rules then you’re going to Hell. So there! NYAH!

  2. chigau (違う) says

    Since all Priests were CalledByGod™, those who transgress clearly™ lied about their Calling™.
    Therefore The Vatican should have been punishing them.
    Call them to Rome for an audience with the Pope and send them to the dungeons under the Vatican.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Some may find it worth noting that Pius X assigned the leadership of the 1904 canon law rewrite (which also just happened to provide much more authority to the Pope and the central office of the Curia) to a bright young priest named Eugenio Pacelli, who rose to the position of Vatican Secretary of State in time to negotiate the crucial Concordat with the Nazi regime in 1933 and took charge as Pope Pius XII in 1939.

    Wotta guy!

  4. Claire Ramsey says

    The Secret of the Holy Office – it sounds like a children’s mystery story, to be solved by Nancy Drew. If I were writing it I’d arm Nancy and write a sad and permanent end to the evil perps in the Old Cathedral.

  5. Blanche Quizno says

    Pope Frankie’s a slippery one. Don’t make any mistakes about that. He’ll muscularly maintain the status quo while making nice-sounding, empty pronouncements to lull the gullible and unaware into thinking he intends reform.

  6. says

    So, it’s not just that they’ve been neglectfully disregarding the victims. They’ve actively changed their own rules to more easily protect the rapists.

    Whenever I think they’ve hit the bottom of the ethical cesspool, they find a way to dive deeper.

  7. sailor1031 says

    Pope Frankie’s a slippery one

    A jesuit specialty. Always has been since the founding of this despicable order of psychopaths.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    Are we to believe that before 1904 the church handed criminal priests over to the civil law? It would be interesting to see if anyone can find ANY examples.

    Good to bring up Pius the XII (‘Hitler’s Pope’) in this context as well. Part of his particular moral loathsomeness was his relentless determination to turn the entire church into an empire with an all-powerful Pope at the center. Historically, the church had a chaotic mass of social and political connections with no centralized patter. The Concordats that Pacelli negotiated, with Mussolini and Hitler, with the future mass-murderers of Croatia etc. were ALL attempts to centralize power into the hands of the pope. In Germany especially, the concordat gutted the power of catholics to resist or oppose the Nazi state, but boy did the Pope’s authority and control get clearer!

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