Church laws deliberately misused to cover up sex claims: Royal Commission
By Rachel Browne, February 9, 2017, The Sydney Morning Herald
Catholic church authorities deliberately misused their own legal code to excuse claims of child sexual abuse and protect alleged perpetrators, according to testimony before a royal commission.
The fourth day of an inquiry into the Catholic church's approach to child sexual abuse heard that canon law has been used to justify the cover-up of alleged crimes.
In a submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Vatican adviser Baroness Sheila Hollins wrote that clergy may have used canon law to hide alleged sexual offending in their ranks.
"Canon law may have been deliberately misused to excuse inexcusable behaviour, and to cover up known wrongdoing," the member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors wrote.
The inquiry before a panel of experts is examining how canon law, which is the Catholic church's system of laws and regulations, intersects with civil law and whether it enabled abuse of children.
Figures released by the commission on Monday revealed 4444 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions between 1980-2015.
Canon lawyer and whistleblower priest Father Thomas Doyle told the hearing Australian Catholic church authorities have been aware of allegations of clerical child sexual abuse for decades.
"Canon law has been used as an excuse in some instances by ecclesiastical authorities for not proceeding and taking direct action against reports of child sexual abuse," he said.
"It has been used as an excuse for not reporting to civil authorities and it has been used as an excuse for allowing accused clerics to continue in ministry."
Canon lawyer Sister Moya Hanlen told the inquiry civil law must be followed in relation to reporting allegations of child sexual abuse.
"I am shamed, deeply shamed, to read and hear various church leaders coming out and saying, 'Only report if you have to'," she said. "I believe that to be incredibly wrong."
The commission heard that "pontifical secrecy", the church's highest form of secrecy outside the confessional, was still in force in relation to child sexual abuse.
"If there are no civil laws requiring reporting, then the pontifical secret still applies," former trainee priest and civil lawyer Kieran Tapsell told the commission.
Civil legislation surrounding the reporting of child abuse allegations varies between Australian states and territories with the commission considering recommendations for a nationally consistent approach.
Panel members expressed support for nationally consistent legal requirements which would compel clergy to report allegations of abuse to secular authorities.
"It will become very clear, not only that the Catholic church, but any organisation has to report," canon lawyer and former priest Rodger Austin said.
"If that was clearly stated that would be a great service to the children who have been abused."
The question of whether the Catholic sacrament of confession has enabled paedophilia within the church is also being explored in the inquiry.
The hearing before Justice Peter McClellan continues.
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