Book Offers Insight into Canon Law's Role in Sexual Abuse Crisis

By Doyle, Thomas P. | National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

Book Offers Insight into Canon Law's Role in Sexual Abuse Crisis


Doyle, Thomas P., National Catholic Reporter


POTIPHAR'S WIFE: THE VATICAN'S SECRET AND CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

By Kieran Tapsell

Published by ATF Press, $40

The legal system of the Roman Catholic church is probably the longest-running in history Canon law, the commonly used name for this system, has been accorded near magical status by some of its practitioners, who are firmly convinced it has an answer to every problem facing the institutional church.

The true believers have claimed that the clergy sex abuse debacle could have been avoided had the church only used its own canonical system. Foremost among them has been Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly head of the Apostolic Signatura, the church's highest court. In 2012, he addressed a canon law convention in Kenya and said that the church has a "carefully articulated process by which to investigate accusations of sex abuse," and that the ongoing problem of clergy sex abuse was because the discipline of canon law was not followed.

Burke's assertion and those of others making similar claims are far removed from the reality of canon law's role in the church's abysmal failure to deal with the epidemic of sexual misbehavior.

On the other side of the reality divide, bishops who actually tried to deal with priest-perpetrators according to the church's rules found themselves more times than not stymied and stonewalled by a confusing and contradictory array of canonical regulations.

I have been a canonist long enough to know that canon law never had a chance. My belief is based on the fact that canon law is a legal system in service to a monarchy By its very nature, the primary goal is to protect the monarchs. There is no separation of powers in the Catholic church, hence no checks and balances.

It doesn't take a seer with a crystal ball to know what happens in a society when there are no restraints on the sources of power. The short history of the contemporary chapter of the church's problem with destructive sexual behavior has proven beyond a doubt that the institution's main concern is the protection of the hierarchy and not the victims.

Kieran Tapsell is an attorney from Sydney. Two years ago, when the Australian Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which is investigating institutions such as schools, churches, sports clubs and government organizations, was getting into full swing, Tapsell contacted me for help with a submission for the commission. We exchanged several emails and I sent him a number of documents, all related to canon law and sexual abuse. His submission grew into a book, Potiphar's Wife: The Vatican's Secret and Child Sexual Abuse.

The title comes from the biblical story of Joseph, who was sold as a slave to Potiphar, who worked for the Pharoah. Potiphar's wife tried to seduce the young man, and when he refused, she accused him of rape. Joseph ended up in prison.

In 2002, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Nicaragua likened the victims of clergy sex abuse to Potiphar's wife: "The reasons that drove Potiphar's wife to lie are pleasure, spite and unrequited love. I don't want to deny the drama of the authentic victims of sexual abuse ... but one can't hide the fact that in some cases we are dealing with presumed victims who want to gain large payoffs on the basis of calumnious accusations. ... The church in the U.S. is living through a heroic moment, of bloodless martyrdom, of persecution."

Of the many spiteful statements made by various and sundry hierarchs, this is surely one of the more ignorant and harmful.

Potiphar's Wife significantly enhanced my own understanding of the complex and often arcane role played by canon law in the abuse crisis. It clearly demonstrates that the church's legal system has not only been a hindrance to justice for the victims, but an enabler to the perpetrators.

Through my correspondence with Tapsell, I learned that he is a scholar with an extraordinary grasp of canon law, its spirit, sources and labyrinthine mechanisms. …

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