Pope Francis’ reforms to canon law on sexual abuse: true change or wishful thinking?

Image description: the Pope, facing away from the camera. 

‘Every time there is a single incident of abuse in the Catholic Church it is a scandal. And I’m glad it is a scandal’ – Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ response to questions on the Catholic Church’s continued association with rape and abuse of children was, in many ways, an understatement. The Catholic Church’s history of paedophilia-related scandals is seemingly common knowledge, and in conversations with friends and family, this topic usually elicits casual jokes. All too often, however, its significance is downplayed by references to the Catholic Church’s involvement in charity. It comes as no surprise, then, that a recent independent report into abuse within the Catholic Church has found Cardinal Nichols to have shown ‘no acknowledgement of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change’, nor any ’compassion towards victims in the recent cases’ examined.

Against this background, the latest changes in canon law on sexual abuse, enacted by Pope Francis, represent a conscious and significant drive to remedy the ills that have marred the history of the Church. The reforms make some key changes: it is now a crime under canon law to omit the reporting of abuse; furthermore, the Church now recognises that vulnerable adults are susceptible to abuse from members of the clergy, and that laypeople who hold church office can now be sanctioned for similar sex crimes.

The real impact of these reforms, however, appears dubious. The internal legal system of the Vatican regulates Catholic life and operates independently from laws in the secular world, and I sincerely doubt that the victims of systematic abuse, or their relatives, will be comforted by punishments like defrocking and prescriptions of penance and prayer. Take, for example, the case of Theodore McCarrick, who was known to have slept with seminarians for years and then was ordered to live a life of ’prayer and penance’ by Pope Francis, pending a canonical trial. This is, of course, the very same Pope Francis who made McCarrick his ‘trusted counsellor’, despite having been told by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano that McCarrick had ’corrupted generations of seminarians and priests’. It is also the very same Pope Francis who went on to remove previous restrictions imposed by Benedict XVI, and the very same Pope Francis who now seeks to apologise for and remedy pain which he has evidently been complicit in perpetuating.

I sincerely doubt that the victims of systematic abuse, or their relatives, will be comforted by punishments like defrocking and prescriptions of penance and prayer.

The issue with the Catholic Church is, and always has been, its predisposition to protecting the clergy and its aversion to the judicious hands of the secular world. For example, a recent independent inquiry into abuse has noted that the Catholic schools’ system, which is so ingrained into our societal framework, ’prioritised monks and their own reputations over the protection of children’. To this end, the Vatican is strikingly similar to Hollywood as a community which protects prominent members of an abusive system: for example, just as convicted paedophile Roman Polanski walked the red carpets of show business, figures like Cardinal Bernard Law were allowed to walk the halls of the Vatican in spite of their involvement in abuse scandals.

While the Church seemingly excuses its weak punitive measures by promoting the clergy’s charitable actions, this justification borders on sophistry—just as the quality of Polanski’s films did not diminish his responsibility for his repulsive deeds, charity does not make one less guilty of committing or being complicit in abuse. It is because of these continued cover-ups of abuse and the disingenuity of key figures in the Catholic Church that seeking justice for abuse victims remains a significant issue today,  and the complacency of the Church’s penal system is allowing abuse to continue. The inquiry into abuse within the Catholic church in Britain has found that more than one-hundred allegations of abuse have been reported each year since 2016. In the report’s own words, this is ’far from a solely historical issue’.

Moreover, the recent reforms of canon law contain a further deficiency. Though increasing focus on the abuses of lay church positions  is a step in the right direction, it is also an ostensibly vacuous one. Kurt Martens, a canon lawyer and professor of an American Catholic University highlights the fundamental issue with these reforms – since laypeople cannot be defrocked, it is ’wishful thinking’ on the Vatican’s part that it will be able to enforce the lay penalty of paying fines. As ever, the canonical reforms seem to be a response to the secular world’s recognition of religious fallibility rather than genuine efforts to heal the gaping wounds of abuse.

The canonical reforms seem to be a response to the secular world’s recognition of religious fallibility rather than genuine efforts to heal the gaping wounds of abuse.

Indeed, there seems to be little hope for progress when Catholic orders have perennially threatened and used legal action to alleviate their own culpability. One survivor of abuse in the Westminster diocese has reported that the Church has spent thousands to keep them and their case ’at arm’s length’. Similarly, the recent investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes run by Catholic nuns in Ireland has been impeded by the ’looming’ threat of legal action by religious orders in Ireland. Notably, in previous cases such as the Ryan commission, which saw allegations of horrific abuse in Ireland, these threats ensured the church was protected from prosecution. Recently, the fear of protracted legal battle has led the most recent commission to directly include only 64 of the 550 reports of abuse made against the Catholic Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland. In a country so heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, the fact that it remains safe in its untouchable aura of sanctity is disheartening and fundamentally unjust. In an era where we have finally started to recognise the culture of abuse that pervades societal institutions, through movements such as #MeToo, let us not shy away from dealing with the clergy in an equally stringent manner.

There remains hope, however, that the tide may currently be changing. I recently attempted to contact an official of the Church over this issue, and the severity with which he took my concern seems reflective of the honest efforts and concern we expect of the Church. Though the scars of abuse and the continued cover-up attempts from some of those in the highest orders will continue to taint the institution if left unaddressed, this gave me some hope that change may occur. We cannot forget the historic heartache both abusers and those complicit in abuse have caused, nor can we ever abate our duty to hold them all accountable for their crimes. And if we can hope that we are finally beginning to see the manifestations of change, we must do everything in our power to expedite this process of justice and reform.

Image credit: Nacho Arteaga