Source: Religion News Service
By Carolyn M. Warner, who is associate director of graduate studies and a professor at Arizona State University.
(The Conversation) — A grand jury report recently found shocking levels of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. It uncovered, in six dioceses, the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children and named 301 perpetrator priests. It also found that religious officials had turned a blind eye to the abuse.
In response, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter addressed to “the People of God,” saying,
“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The fact is the pope has the power to ensure that this does not happen again. As a scholar of the Catholic Church, I believe an important but often poorly understood reason for the abandonment of abused children is the Church’s Code of Canon law, which the pope alone can change.
Early church laws on sex abuse
Canon laws govern the church and lay out its theology. All Catholic religious officials are bound by them.
Canon law has a complex history. It originated in early Christian communities. Christians, building on the Gospels and other sacred texts, developed norms and rules about acceptable practices and behavior, including wrongdoing by clergy. Christian communities usually had rules against religious officials sexually abusing children. They were harsh on sodomy. Punishments could include being smeared with spit and bound in iron chains.
As Christian communities spread throughout the Mediterranean region in the third century A.D., regional meetings were held to discuss rules that could be applied uniformly.
By the fourth century A.D., Christian churches, usually through councils, started issuing authoritative rules accepted by all Christian communities. These came to be called “canons.” The most well-known were those of the Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325.
The enforcement of the canons was put in the hands of church bishops.
As Christianity spread east and west, it struggled with rulers who wanted to control peoples and territories. Diverse rules and norms proliferated. At the same time, over many centuries, various religious leaders and theologians tried to create a uniform system.
It was not until 1917, under Pope Benedict XV, however, that the Church consolidated and revised the many different rules in Western Christendom. This was titled the Code of Canon Law, applicable to all Roman Catholic churches. Only the pope could issue or change canon law. The Orthodox, or “Eastern rite,” churches have a slightly different set of laws.
The Church sometimes turned errant priests over to civil authorities.
That changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Church-state battles flared in Europe as secular states rejected the church’s claims to sovereignty. The Church made the handling of clergy child sex abuse an internal matter.
The 1917 code was revised in 1983 to take into account changes stemming from the Second Vatican Council, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops meant to settle doctrinal issues, held between 1962 to 1965. Both versions of the code include canons about sex abuse.
All religious leaders have a tendency to create a state within the state. They try to administer justice among their believers. It always is presented as administering family law.
The irony is that according to the same religious leaders every one is free to follow these rules and regulations. So you don’t need to administer them. And yet this is exactly what they do.
The fact is that human beings want to get power. There are two ways to do it. One is politics and the other is religion. All religious leaders are after power. If they were only trying to spread the peaceful message of self improvement they will not have such robust government like organization.
Any religious leader who tries to administer justice in criminal matters should be charged with treason and punished accordingly.