Pope's words 'difficult to reconcile' with Vatican's lack of cooperation with abuse inquiry

Pope’s words ‘difficult to reconcile’ with Vatican’s lack of cooperation with abuse inquiry

Pope’s words ‘difficult to reconcile’ with Vatican’s lack of cooperation with abuse inquiry

Pope Francis walks to his chair as he arrives for an audience in the Paul VI hall, at the Vatican. Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. (Credit: Andrew Medichini/AP.)

It was “very disappointing” the Vatican failed to give testimony during an investigation into sex abuse in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, according to the lead counsel to the inquiry.

News Analysis

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – It was “very disappointing” the Vatican failed to give testimony during an investigation into sex abuse in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, according to the lead counsel to the inquiry.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) investigation into the bishops’ conference’s response to the sex abuse crisis is taking place Oct. 28 – Nov. 8, and there has been frustration with the lack response from the Holy See to requests for information.

“The Holy See has not provided any evidence about the role of the CDF and/or laicization and declined to provide the inquiry with a witness statement,” Brian Altman, the inquiry’s lead counsel, said on Monday.

The requests were made to the Vatican ambassador to the UK, Archbishop Edward Adams. Like all ambassadors, he has diplomatic immunity and cannot be subpoenaed by his host country.

“Let me make perfectly clear that the inquiry went through established diplomatic channels and all proper procedures, including seeking assistance and advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, despite which no statements have been provided to the inquiry by the Holy See,” Altman complained.

“The Holy See’s refusal to provide the Inquiry with all the evidence it has sought is very disappointing. In his introduction to the recent Motu Proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, Pope Francis acknowledged the ‘physical, psychological and spiritual damage’ done to the victims of child sexual abuse, and added that ‘a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church,” Altman said.

The IICSA was established by the British Home Office – which oversees similar areas as the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security – in 2014. It is independent and does not answer to the government.

The body is investigating abuse in several institutions, including the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, and different state institutions.

It has already investigated and reported on the Archdiocese of Birmingham and on several English Benedictine abbeys of Downside and Ampleforth. Another report on Ealing Abbey and St. Benedict’s school was published just days ago.

The Vatican did provide information to the inquiry on laicized priest Laurence Soper, now serving time in prison for pedophilic abuse while serving as abbot of Ealing. He was later moved to Rome, from where he fled to Kosovo, where he was arrested.

The Vatican claims it gave London’s Metropolitan Police crucial information in tracking Soper down, although the priest had a Vatican Bank account for years before this, and the institution had his address on file.

Altman said the Vatican failed to answer important outstanding questions surrounding the case; it had failed to participate at all last year during the separate inquiry into the Abbey.

“You may consider that it is difficult to reconcile the pope’s own words with the Holy See’s response to the requests properly made to it by this Inquiry,” the lawyer said.

This kind of exchange could become a regular occurrence for the Vatican as more jurisdictions – including several U.S. states – begin their investigations into the clerical abuse scandal in the Church.

Even in the UK, a separate Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry was established in 2015 and is also investigated church institutions, which exist under the jurisdiction of the independent Scottish bishops’ conference.

The Vatican – like most sovereign states – does not want to be dragged into domestic court cases and inquiries. Its diplomats have immunity to prevent such things from happening. Ambassadors also don’t have to answer subpoenas.

At the same time, the Vatican is unlike other independent states in a very important way – it has extensive influence over the domestic Church in countries around the world, from appointing bishops to passing binding legislation these churches must follow, including regarding sex abuse.

This was made very clear last year, when the Vatican put a stop to the U.S. bishops voting on new procedures to deal with allegations of abuse.

The case of Soper sheds a light on another aspect of the Vatican’s unique status: Although a British national, the Benedictine priest was able to be moved to a position in Rome when the situation became too hot for him in England. It is true he absconded from the order, but he was still able to deal with the Vatican Bank.

Now this doesn’t mean there is a conspiracy – there is little communication between Church and Vatican entities in Rome, and it would be easy to believe no one at the bank knew Soper was a fugitive, and that no one in the Benedictines thought of using the bank to track him down. In fact, it was when new financial controls were put into place, and accounts were scrutinized, that Soper was located.

But still, you can see why the inquiry would want a Vatican official to explain the details of what went wrong.

Vatican diplomats are loath to create any impression they are different than other diplomats, which is one of the reasons the Vatican’s Secretariat of State is willing to face the backlash from public relations scandals that result from it ignoring requests from bodies like the IICSA.

Vatican officials are also more comfortable making general apologies for how the abuse crisis was handled in the past, than having to face the discomfort of having to explain how particular mistakes happened – which wouldn’t be able to be avoided at the IICSA hearing, as the English bishops who have testified will tell you.

(One example of this reluctance to admit to specific errors is the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Over a year ago, the Vatican promised an investigation into his rise through the hierarchy, but we have heard nothing since, even though a leading cardinal confirmed to Crux that the final report was with the Secretariat of State.)

This attitude, as Altman pointed out, is causing an incongruence between the pope’s pledge to do all that is possible to stop abuse, and the Vatican’s apparent stonewalling of abuse investigations and inquiries.

One possibility might be for the pope to draft specific legislation addressing cooperation with other state institutions on abuse, similar to what has been done in the financial sphere. This could clearly set out how such institutions can request needed information from the relevant Vatican bodies as opposed to solely working through the Secretariat of State. The Vatican could also work to provide expert witnesses to give testimony when needed, such as at the ongoing IICSA hearing.

In the end, however the Vatican decides to eventually deal with requests for information on abuse, the buck stops at Pope Francis’s desk.

On Thursday, Christopher Pearson – the Chair of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission – gave his testimony to IICSA and noted the “Church hides behind this very complicated organization, but it is in fact a simple, flat organization.”

But he also said the abuse crisis will not be solved at the local level: “It needs to be solved in Rome, where the leadership is.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome


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