Clerical Secrecy


The Church and child abuse


In 2014 the retired Australian lawyer Kieran Tapsell published <Potiphar's Wife or The Vatican's Secret and Child Sexual Abuse>.With this book he wanted to make clear to everyone how the Catholic Church has struggled over the centuries with child abuse by priests. You can find an article of his with more than 100 references to  literature which he had studied. I have made a summary for those who want to know the core of his thesis.                                                              Mr. Ed H. Schreurs





In 306 the Council of Elvira defined the abuse of children as a deadly sin that had to be punished by life excommunication and transfer to the civil authorities. For 15 centuries, the scheme remained almost intact. Also in the Canon with the rules of canon law for bishops and priests, established around 1200 it was assumed that the civilian government by certain priests and executed the punishment for child abuse. This meant, in many cases imprisonment, beheading or death at the stake. This continued until about 150 years ago. The collaboration between Church and State was no hard and fast rule anymore. The Church was looking for a way to protect its priests against biased judges. Later went preventing adverse publicity involved.


In 1842, the Holy Office discharged  priests who testified regret, from the canonical obligation to surrender to the civil authorities in countries where schismatics, heretics or Muslims ruled the law.


In 1866, Pius IX decreed that proceedings of child abuse by priests must remain strictly secret. There must be restraint exercised when demoting secular priests because such missteps.


The secrecy was further strengthened by Leo XIII in 1890. Witnesses should be called on different days, were under oath to be sworn to secrecy and only be examined on a private location. Not only the procedure but also the facts needed to remain secret.


In 1904 Pius X ordered that all old decrees demanding that priests who had committed crimes should lose their function and had to be turned over to the civil authorities, were raised, not only in some countries but around the world. Those who had abused children  would only be fired in more severe cases.  


Pius XI decreed in 1922 that the bishop was to construct a secret dossier which had to be burned after ten years or after the death of the priest. Everybody who would violate the secrecy would be automatically excommunicated.


Around that time arose the belief that priests were actually substantially different people because of  their ordination. A priest could make mistakes but not crimes. Catholic countries made it law. In Latvia, Poland, Italy, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Spain ruled that priests who had abused children, at most could be sentenced to imprisonment in a monastery.


John XXIII made secrecy in 1962 also apply to cases in which monk priests had abused children. Abuse should not be disclosed to anyone, not to the police anywhere, nor by someone who had accidentally taken note of new objectionable facts.


Paul VI made the rules in 1974 also apply to monks who were not priests. As a result, the scope increased by 250%.


In 1974 when recidivism already had increased enormously, Pope John Paul II had made dismissal of those who had abused children,  virtually impossible. Gradually arose scandals along media.


In 2010, Benedict XVI decreed still the same secret proceeding should be exercised when pornography was found or when mentally handicapped adults were abused.





Also in 2010, a statement was announced in which cases the bishops had to inform the government. There were cries in advance. Irish bishops asked in 1996 to set the passing of every case of child abuse mandatory. That application was rejected by Rome as contrary to Canon Law. Australian bishops ignored Canon Law and introduced mandatory reporting. British bishops wanted mandatory reporting in 2001 American bishops asked the same in 2002. This time Rome agreed with it in cases where a local legal obligation to report existed under penalty of imprisonment . in 2014 the Department of Human Rights of the United Nations demanded from the Church that it would drop the secrecy. Pope Francis noted that the requirement of notification would be against the independence of states. Independent commentators noticed immediately, that this objection would go anywhere if there would be a country in the world that banned reporting. Such a country doesn’t exist. The Church is not yet used to the new open culture. Recently has been  found that only one third of priests who have abused children are put out their duties. It calls for a cultural change. The same act that once was considered a forgivable  sin, now is a crime that must be punished severely and unconditionally.