The Vatican, child sex crimes and how Australia is the great facilitator

AUSTRALIA should renounce the Vatican’s diplomatic status, close its embassy to the Holy See and make senior Catholic clergy accountable to the Australian criminal justice system, say supporters of a tougher response to the church after it refused to comply with requests from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Hunter-based One Nation Senator Brian Burston is planning a private member’s bill to withdraw diplomatic recognition granted the Vatican in 1973, after public controversy about Cardinal George Pell’s failure to return to Australia to give evidence at the royal commission, and the Vatican’s refusal to provide the commission with files of Australian child sex offender priests held by the Holy See.

“It’s disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful. They’re hiding behind the diplomatic status but it’s typical of how the church acts,” Mr Burston said.

A call by NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge - who campaigned for the royal commission - to renounce the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition was backed by human rights lawyer and church critic Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who said “if we have any self-respect we should sever our ties with it”.

“Australians get nothing for the multi-million tax dollars they spend on a Vatican embassy, and closing it now would send an important message to the Vatican that it must never again orchestrate child abuse, and it must not continue to cover it up by declining to cooperate with the Royal Commission,” Mr Robertson told the Newcastle Herald in response to questions.

“It is outrageous that we spend millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on an entirely unnecessary and useless embassy to the Vatican. All business significant to Australia is done at our embassy to Italy, which is just down the road.” 

He slammed the Australian ambassador to the Vatican’s position as “a retirement perk for the likes of superannuated Catholic politicians”.

Mr Shoebridge said the current situation meant the Vatican “is hiding behind the protection the Australian government has given to it”.

“Australia allows the Catholic Church to protect sexual predators, and any information the church holds on its own illegal activity, from the law. We let them do this by granting the Catholic Church protections afforded to no other religious group on the planet. It is well past time that this ended,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Diplomatic recognition granted by the Whitlam Labor Government in 1973 gives the Vatican, its senior officials in Australia including the Apostolic Nuncio, and the Vatican embassy in Canberra, the same protections afforded embassies and staff of foreign nations.

Australia allows the Catholic Church to protect sexual predators, and any information the church holds on its own illegal activity, from the law. We let them do this by granting the Catholic Church protections afforded to no other religious group on the planet. It is well past time that this ended.

NSW Greens justice spokesman David Shoebridge

“Their documents cannot be subpoenaed and their senior officials cannot be forced to attend court or provide information,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“By accepting that the Vatican has the same status as a foreign nation, we also accept that this church can refuse any Australian request or demand to hand over alleged criminals they are protecting, to stand trial in Australia.”

While Australia has an extradition treaty with Italy, it “hasn’t managed in the last 44 years to get one in place with the tiny pretend nation-state of the Vatican that exists wholly within Rome”, Mr Shoebridge said.

“This is why, for example, George Pell can’t be forced to come back to face questioning in the royal commission, and why if a senior Vatican official in Rome was accused of child abuse, he could not be forced to face a criminal trial in our country. 

“Imagine for just one moment if Australia decided to grant Sunni Islam, or Scientology or the Anglican Church the same level of immunity as the Catholic Church. If that happened there would quite rightly be an uproar. The Catholic Church’s protection is a historical artefact that should have been addressed decades ago.”

The Vatican has diplomatic recognition with more than 180 countries, although a majority do not have embassies at the Vatican. The Vatican achieved United Nations permanent observer status in 1964 without a General Assembly or Security Council vote, but failed an attempt at full member status in 2002. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Australia’s first permanent ambassador to the Holy See in 2008 - former Coalition Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer.

The current Australian ambassador to the Vatican is public servant and diplomat Melissa Hitchman.   

In an opening address on February 6 to the 16th, and final, public hearing into the Catholic Church, counsel assisting the royal commission Gail Furness, SC, confirmed the Vatican had refused a request to provide files of all Australian church abuse cases referred to the Holy See.

The Vatican advised in 2014 it was “neither possible nor appropriate”.

Letters made public by the royal commission show chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, wrote to Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin in April, 2014, saying the Vatican files would help the commission understand the extent of clerical child sex allegation referrals to the Vatican, and the action taken by the church in each case.

Cardinal Parolin declined in July, 2014, in a letter to the Australian embassy at the Vatican, saying the request to “undertake the substantial burden of locating, reviewing and copying all files regarding every accused Australian cleric appears inconsistent with international practice”.

He ended his letter to the Australian embassy by reaffirming “the importance of reciprocal exchanges of information between sovereign states”.

The request to “undertake the substantial burden of locating, reviewing and copying all files regarding every accused Australian cleric appears inconsistent with international practice”.

Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Data released by the commission showed 4445 people between 1980 and 2015 alleged they had been sexually abused by Catholic Church representatives, a figure even the church acknowledged understated the true extent of abuse in Australia.

“The data provides, as best it can, a public accounting of what has occurred; a public record of the number of people coming forward to say they were abused,” the church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan told the commission.

“We recognise that many have not come forward and never will.”

The data was an “indictment” on the church’s child sex offenders and a reflection on church leaders who “failed to deal with them in accordance with the law”, Mr Sullivan said. 

Former trainee priest, lawyer and author Kieran Tapsell, who gave evidence to the royal commission on February 9 about the significant secrecy provisions that remain in church law, said the Vatican used its status as an independent country “whenever it is convenient to do so”.

But it also “ignores the reality that it is an international organisation that controls the church in every part of the world through canon law”.

Mr Tapsell’s submission to the royal commission said the Catholic Church, which is the only religion with observer status at the United Nations, told the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that the Vatican’s responsibility under the Convention for the Rights of the Child was for the 31 children of the Swiss guards and other employees who reside in its 44 hectares.

“Yet within those 44 hectares it is handling disciplinary proceedings against thousands of priests throughout the world who were sexually abusing children, and none of the children involved were those of the Swiss Guards or other Vatican employees,” Mr Tapsell said.

“The ultimate authority over whether these priests continue to have connections with children resides with the Vatican, if they have not been convicted by a civil court.”

In 2014 the Vatican refused two United Nations committee requests for details of disciplinary proceedings against priests accused of child sexual abuse. It also refused a UN request for Pope Francis to change canon law to allow Bishops around the world to report historic child sex matters to authorities including police. Current canon law only allows Bishops to report in countries where they can be charged for failing to do so.

In 2015 the Vatican refused a request by Italian magistrates for evidence used in a church trial of serial paedophile Father Mauro Inzoli, who was defrocked by Pope Benedict in 2012, reinstated by Pope Francis in 2014 to live a “life of humility and prayer”, and convicted in an Italian court in 2016 for child sex offences.

Mr Tapsell said he expected the royal commission to recommend a system of oversight of church disciplinary proceedings, but it would not overcome the Vatican’s insistence that it should have exclusive jurisdiction over what happens to clerics, and the inability of Australian authorities to have access to documents sent to the Vatican on abuse allegations.

Mr Tapsell said Pope Francis’s recent claim of a “zero tolerance” approach to child sexual abuse was not borne out by figures he presented to the United Nations, which showed that only one in four priests found to have sexually abused children were dismissed.

“If zero tolerance in a professional context means dismissal – as it normally does - that’s a 75 per cent tolerance, not zero. While some restrictions on ministry may have been imposed on those 75 per cent, we don’t know what they are, and will not know what they are unless the Vatican agrees to provide it,” Mr Tapsell said.

Mr Burston said it was well past the time when Australia needed to reconsider the Vatican’s diplomatic status, because it had facilitated the abuse of children over decades.

The royal commission is continuing to hear evidence at its final public hearing into the Catholic Church.

This story Calls for Vatican diplomatic recognition to end first appeared on Newcastle Herald.