I just finished The Case of the Pope, by Geoffrey Robsertson. Robertson, a QC who is a specialist on human rights law and who has previously defended the rights of Catholic groups, puts together a daming legal case on the Vatican accountability for the global sexual abuse scandal. The most surprising part of the book to me is how much of the (non)response to sexual abuse has been formally codified. As the book outlines:
1. In official doctrinal advice communicated to all Bishops, the Vatican has decided that sexual abuse of children should be treated not under the civil law of the countries in which the crime was committed, but rather under Canon Law, a Catholic legal code designed to prosecute Priests for hersey and apostacy. Essentially this decision treats child sexual abuse as a sin instead of a crime, placing it on par with consensual homosexual acts or the ordination of females. These procedural rules were communicated secretly, on pain of excommunication, and were only leaked to US lawyers in 2003.
2. The process of Canon Law is patently unsuitable for the prosecution of sexual abuse cases. The legal process is set up in favour of the Priest, with no allowable submission of forensic evidence, no allowance for confessional admissions of guilt to be entered and no adversorial interrogation. Furthermore, the judge in hand is the local Bishop, with pastoral duties over the accused Priest, and the Bishop is instructed not to make verdicts which will cause the Church to be emeshed in a scandal.
3. The maximum punishment which can be given for a guilty verdict is excommunication, which would allow the Priest to walk free with no civil consequences (such as imprisonment or registration on a sex offenders registry). Far more common are punishments which involve various degrees of counselling or partial restriction of pastoral duties. The result of the verdict is not allowed to be given to civil authorities, making this verdict the first and final one the Priest can expect to receive.
4. The accusor has no recourse to justice once the accusation has been raised with the Church. The accusor is sworn to secrecy and is not allowed to raise the accusation or the verdict with any civil authorities, on pain of excommunication - the same maximum level of punishment that the abuser can receive. In effect, this means that once a complaint is raised within the Church an accusor has no capacity to raise the issue in a court that can punish the offender, unless they are willing to be excommunicated for the "crime" of being a victim of sexual abuse.
5. The Church has a history of rewarding Bishops who follow the process of Canon Law, even to the extent of impeding civil authorities in the attempt to imprison a sexual predator (eg Bishop Pierre Pican). By contrast, whistle-blowers who raise sexual abuse with civil authorities (eg Father Maurie Crocker or Mother Mary MacKillop) are ostracised and punished. The Vatican has repeatedly failed to modify Canon Law to provide for real justice, or even to allow the US and UK the requested exemption from the restriction on reporting sexual abuse to civil authorities. The Vatican has even failed the legally binding obligation to produce reports on child welfare, as required under the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, demonstrating no serious attempt to change the system of institutional cover-up.
Robertson makes the convincing argument that this constitutes a codified system for dealing with sexual abuse secretly, providing for no real punishments to the offender and no possibility for justice to the victim. As a lawyer, the majority of the book actually focuses on whether or not the Pope can be legally tried for these actions, with the issue of legal immunity investigated in great detail. While this legal issue is important, the question of legal accountability, of course, has no impact on ethical accountability, which rises above technical issues of legal jurisdiction and diplomatic immunity.