ON THE QUESTION of how far papal authority extends, the canon law of the Catholic Church could not be clearer: “The vicar of Christ. . . possesses full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.” (Can. 331) Note that canon law does not say, “except in cases of priestly sex abuse of children.” Canon law does not say that priests and bishops are independent contractors. Canon law does not say that what happens in Catholic parishes and dioceses around the world has nothing to do with Rome. In fact, another canon reads, “By virtue of his office, the Roman pontiff not only possesses power over the universal church, but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groups of them.” (Can. 333)
How to square that sweeping papal power with the shameless dodge put forward by the Holy See in this era of church disgrace — the claim that, when it comes to protecting children from abuse, the Roman Catholic Church is legally responsible only to safeguard those living in the confines of Vatican City, a tiny city-state that would fit inside New York’s Central Park eight times? Washing the Vatican’s hands of broader responsibility for the staggering transnational accumulation of rapes by priests, and systematic enabling of those rapes by bishops, a Vatican spokesman said, “When individual institutions of national churches are implicated, that does not regard the competence of the Holy See . . . The competence of the Holy See is at the level of the Holy See.”
Last week, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child mocked that claim by issuing a scathing indictment of Catholic child abuse, laying full responsibility at the feet of the pope himself. The committee, investigating priestly abuse under the authority of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Vatican is a signatory, reminded the Holy See that “by ratifying the convention it has committed itself to implementing the convention not only on the territory of the Vatican City state, but also as the supreme power of the Catholic Church through individuals and institutions placed under its authority.” The UN committee, that is, upholds canon law better than the Vatican does.
The pope’s men, including squads of lawyers who deny that offending priests and bishops are “employees” and insist that the pope as a sovereign head of state is immune from lawsuits, are obviously seeking to fend off the threat of multinational litigation that could saddle the Vatican with billions of dollars in liabilities. So far, courts have mostly sided with the Holy See.
But the Vatican strategy has come at a terrible moral cost. Once again, protection of church power and possessions is trumping the profound moral obligation to reckon with the truth of what is still happening in the Catholic Church. And now comes this next lie — the ridiculous assertion that the pope does not exercise full and complete authority over priests and bishops. When parishioners fight the closure of beloved churches, they appeal to Rome. When English-speaking Catholics are directed to say at Mass that Jesus died for “many” instead of for “all,” the fiat comes from Rome. “The competence of the Holy See” is exercised at every level of church life everywhere.
The UN report is so blistering because the committee clearly concludes that, despite a Vatican official’s assertion that the church “gets it,” the hierarchy still does not understand the urgency of protecting children. The Holy See hides behind reporting law loopholes that exist in many nations. It still does not hold to account the abuse-enabling bishops, a failure permanently on display in the honors accorded to cover-up icon Cardinal Bernard Law. And the UN commission, surprisingly impolitic, properly calls attention to the broader culture of Catholic sexual repressiveness — “barriers and taboos” — because it is the source of what endangers children. Vatican push-back in the name of “religious freedom” misses the point, and deflects the core UN indictment.
Pope Francis has appointed a Commission for the Protection of Minors, and the UN urges that it be independently empowered and fully transparent. Francis has generated enormous hope for a new day in the Catholic Church, but on the abuse question he has miles to go. The message from the United Nations is that the world is more appalled by Catholic crimes than defensive church officials are. If the church does not address those crimes, others will.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.