The Vatican cannot and should not demand that all the clergy’s sexual crimes be reported to authorities around the world
Friday 13 August 2010 12.36 BST
One constant complaint against the Catholic church is that its rules do not explicitly state that any cases of child abuse must be reported to the police. This ignores the fact that the Vatican rules do not prevent any bishop or priest reporting any crime to their civil authorities and they do not prevent local churches requiring that any allegations must be reported to their local authorities, as the British and American churches now do. However the rules laid down by the Vatican apply to the church throughout the world not just in America or Britain and as such they apply within countries with very varied standards of judicial and police behaviour and with a variety of views as to what constitutes criminal behaviour
There are many things which are crimes in church law but not in state law, It would be pointless to report those to the authorities. There are many things which are a crime under the laws of some states but not others.
Under its current rules for example the church sets the age of a minor as being up to 18 while across the world the legal age of consent for sexual intercourse can range from 13 in Spain or Nigeria to 18 in Swaziland or Idaho. Similarly while consensual homosexual sex between adults is now legal in most countries it is still illegal in many countries and can carry the death penalty. Are the critics of the church stating that the church must report all crimes to the authorities including homosexuality and adultery even if the perpetrators might be sentenced to death ?
For example a priest who has sex with a 14 year old girl in Spain does not commit a crime but would in England; a priest who has an adulterous heterosexual relationship in England would not commit a crime but would commit a crime in Iran which could lead to him and the woman being stoned to death. The same point may be made about homosexual behaviour by a Priest which would be regarded by the church as an offence contrary to canon law but would be regarded in entirely different lights by law enforcement officials in different countries.
It is also important to remember that legal rules regarding what is or is not legal sexual behaviour have changed in many parts of the world and may change again. The church has, for example, been criticised over its 1962 letter “Crimen Sollicitationis” which laid down rules dealing with improper sexual behaviour by priests but did not require that these matters should be reported to the Police. However in 1962, consensual interacial sex was illegal in much of the United States as well as in South Africa, and homosexuality was an imprisonable criminal offence in England.
In 1962 Communism ruled much of the world and a person who attended church could lose their job if the Communist authorities became aware. 1962 was only four years before the start of the Cultural Revolution in China when churches were attacked and Priests killed, only six years after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising and six years before the crushing of the Prague Spring. In those circumstances it is hardly surprising if church instructions did not require that all state authorities be automatically informed of any allegations made against a priest.
Further, there are some states whose attitude to human rights is such that no alleged criminals of any sort should be handed over to them.
What it seems that the opponents of the church are really demanding is that Bishops should have been ordered by the Vatican to report to the authorities in any country conduct which is illegal under British laws in 2010; but this is not a realistic demand to make of any multinational organisation. Looking at the internal disciplinary rules of virtually any organisation it is rare for those rules to require that any allegation of misconduct must be reported to the Police. Usually it is a matter of discretion and the church is no exception. This discretion may have been badly exercised by many bishops but that does not make the Vatican rules either wrong or criminal.