Punishment for the Pope?

Blind acceptance of canon law is wrong

Have you heard the one about the priest and the choirboy?

Ministerial jokes have been given a fresh wave of ammunition this month, as sexual abuse scandal followed sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Not only has the number of abuses shocked the world, but the pope himself has also been labelled culpable for his failure to defrock abusers and his implicit allowance (while presiding archbishop of the Vatican’s doctrinal office) of a known pedophile resuming parish duties. However, as all decry papal justice, the question remains: Why did national, legal, and administrative authorities let such affairs occur in their own country? The Vatican is, in some respects, considered a state, and should fully control and take responsibility for its own actions. But it doesn’t bear the same blunt repercussions as Western states, and the inadequacies in its legal system are offensive to advanced nations. The trust and deference awarded to the structure of the Roman Catholic Church would not be applied to any other religious institution, and in a world of national responsibility, it is frankly unjust. Respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican should be upheld; however, it is only fair that national law oversees and influences practice within canon law.

The recent reports have revealed a wave of sexual abuse instances, condemned the head of the Irish Church for being part of an investigation that forced two children to sign secrecy oaths, and shown the pope himself to be excessively lenient in punishing sex offenders. A letter was revealed that showed the pope refused to defrock a Catholic priest who molested children for “the good of the universal church.” Furthermore, reports have shown that while archbishop of Munich, the pope approved a pedophilic priest to undergo therapy, and, despite warnings from a therapist, the priest was later allowed to return to parish duties, whereupon he continued to molest children. Whether or not the pope knew about the priest’s re-instatement is somewhat irrelevant, as the ruling happened under his watch. Before 2001, there was no set system for handling sexual abuse cases, which were only ever addressed at a diocesan level. But even though 60 percent of cases after 2001 were dealt with by administrative action rather than long, drawn out court cases, there is clearly no set system of accountability and punishment. Furthermore, the reports in Ireland showed that the Church failed to report the offenses to local authorities, thus preventing any external punishment.

In the wake of these findings, outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has suggested that the pope should stand trial. Such a notion is simplistic, inappropriate, and, at any rate, impossible, due to the pope’s criminal and civil immunity as head of a state. Nevertheless, Dawkin’s proposition raises the interesting question about national reactions to canon law failings. Why should there not be a greater emphasis on national legal systems when it comes to issues that affect citizens outside the church? And why shouldn’t there be legal retributions on a national level against those who made serious errors in allowing pedophiles to work with children?

In some regards, the Vatican is treated as a country in its own right, and so its legal affairs are treated as an internal matter. However, this skirts the fact that the Vatican doesn’t function like a normal country—its leadership holds authority within the legal fabric of other nations. Thus, the matters dealt with by canon law are still under the jurisdiction of other national legal systems. Furthermore, the Church doesn’t have the same in-built assurances of responsibility and retribution as most Western nations. Democracies ensure a degree of dependence on the public, so no political figure would be able to get away with the acts that the church community has without having to resign. Not only does the Catholic Church escape this guaranteed reliance on public support, but it also avoids surveillance from a higher power. No school education system or other intuition would be allowed to conduct its inner procedures and administration in the way the Church has done and not face a reaction from a government body. Thus, the Church seems to avoid serious consequences and retribution.


The pope is right in noting that the Church is a community with justified concern for its public appearance, and it’s undeniable that the Vatican deserves respect and thus, its institution and church-related dealings should remain internal. However, it is a commonly upheld Western belief that, regardless of religion, citizens should adhere to the law of the land. One could never imagine such lenience being applied to the inner workings of a Muslim body. The deference to canon law is excessive, and national legal systems should place limits on the Church’s power. Governments should be allowed to decree the fate of pedophilic priests in their own countries, and, if the Church does not grant them this right, there should be legal punishment for those who hid the crime. Perhaps to arrest the pope is a step too far, but the Roman Catholic Church should know that its jurisdiction does not supersede that of national justice systems.

Olivia M. Goldhill ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a philosophy concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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