Pope Francis has a clear priority: stop and prevent the sexual abuse of young boys

Years of molestation by priests remains an appalling stain on the Vatican

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As the world absorbs the news of the appointment of the new Pope, it is time to ask how the next Supreme Leader of the Catholic Church can meet its most urgent challenge, of stopping its priests sexually molesting small boys.

There have been, on a realistic estimate, over 100,000 such victims since 1981 when Joseph Ratzinger became head of the Vatican office which declined to defrock paedophiles and instead approved their removal to other parishes and other countries.

These widespread and systematic sexual assaults can collectively be described as a crime against humanity. The church cannot atone just by paying compensation. Unless the new Pope installs a policy that minimises danger to children, he, like Benedict, will become complicit in ongoing but avoidable abuse.

Zero tolerance

First, and most obviously, there must be zero tolerance for paedophile priests. They must be automatically defrocked as soon as their Bishop learns of their crime. There must be no delay, and certainly no appeal to the Vatican – it was there that Ratzinger’s preference for avoiding scandal permitted so many paedophiles to be forgiven, and then to re-offend. There is ample evidence now, from Ireland, America and Europe, that the Vatican has conspired to thwart prosecutors and protect clerical criminals.

The Pope is the source of Canon law, which directs that allegations of child molestation be investigated in utter secrecy, by a “trial” loaded in favour of clerics who if found guilty are “punished” for the most part by orders for prayer and penitence. This must be changed, by recognition that child molestation is a serious offence which cannot be dealt with in a secret ecclesiastical procedure.

Allegations must be reported to the police. The Vatican pretends that it made this change in 2011, when new “guidelines” were issued reminding Bishops to co-operate with law enforcement authorities, but only when local law requires it (and many countries still do not have laws compelling the reporting of child abuse).

These “guidelines” are not incorporated into Canon law: Bishops are not told to hand evidence over to the police, and priests are not required to inform on brothers whom they know (often through confession) to be molesting children. There is no duty to suspend a suspected priest.

Even in countries where local Bishops have bowed to political pressure and announced that public prosecutors will be told of sex abuse allegations, there is always a qualification: “Only if the victim consents”. It is all too easy for young victims and trusting parents to be counseled that the victim’s best interests lie in allowing the church to deal with the matter “in its own way” without involving the police.

So criminal priests escape prosecution because officials, in order to protect the reputation of their church, pressure and persuade families to have complaints dealt with in secret under Canon law processes.

Papal courage

Abolishing the role of the Vatican and of Canon law in covering up for paedophile priests, will take some papal courage, but will be relatively easy beside the radical changes necessary to stop the abuse from happening in the first place.

The reform most often suggested is to abandon celibacy. This would not be doctrinally difficult – Christ’s disciples appear to have been married, and the rule was a dogma introduced in the 11th century and almost abolished by 16th century reformers.

But marriage does not “cure” paedophilia. Moreover, many abusive priests are not paedophiles: their disordered personality can often be ascribed to conditions that would prevent them from forming satisfactory heterosexual relationships. Essentially, abuse happens because they are too weak or emotionally immature to resist the temptation.

That temptation arises because the church indoctrinates children at their earliest rational age – usually at seven – that the priest is the agent of God. Communion is an awesome miracle performed by the God-priest, and then the impressionable and nervous child is made to confess his sins and seek forgiveness from God, represented again by the priest.

Father Tom Doyle explains the phenomenon of children’s unflinching obedience to priests’ sexual requests as induced by “reverential fear” - the victims have such emotional and psychological dependence on the abuser that they unquestioningly obey – and do not tell for many years afterwards.

It follows that the only reform that would tackle the evil of clerical sexual abuse at its source would be to raise the age, from seven to (say) 13, at which children are first given communion and confession, which inculcates their reverence for the priesthood.

Pity the children

Other churches (and the Jewish faith) leave indoctrination and spiritual commitment rituals until teenage-hood: by this stage, young people are much more capable of resisting sexual advances, and have more courage to report them.

Could a Pope ever contemplate this reform? The Jesuits say, “give me the boy at seven”, and now we know what that has meant for so many boys. The Vatican newspaper, worried that indoctrination at seven is not producing sufficient life-time allegiance, has been arguing that the age of first communions and confession be reduced to five.

If the new Pope cannot bring himself to deliver small children from the spiritual hold of the priest, then Parliaments may have to step in to protect children of tender age from immersion in religious rituals.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is author of “The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuses” (Penguin 2010)

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