Thursday, 16 February 2012

Is escalating abuse in religious institutions worth investigating?

Why should one law be applicable to religious organisations, and another for the rest of us. Under Canon Law 489 every Catholic diocese has a secret archive which is kept locked and has in it secret documents. These documents are to be ‘protected most securely’ and contain, ‘matters of morals’ and ‘criminal cases’. Only the bishop is allowed to possess the key and the archive is only to opened in a case of ‘true necessity’.
In other words allegations of abuse by a priest upon a child from many years ago, are likely to be contained within the secret safe.

Nothing of the like exists at civil law. If a document is needed for a case against the church, then it has to be disclosed with one or two limitations and exceptions - for instance National Security.

We,  at the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers are somewhat tired of the litigious attitude of the Catholic Church in compensation claims. On the one hand we witness the conciliatory attitude of the church, who adopt a genuinely confessional and religious approach to help victims address the demons within them. On the other hand, should the formerly abused victim decide to take the Church to court for compensation, watch out. A fierce adversarial approach is likely to result. Historically the legal team acting for the church have decided to try every technical point they can, in order to defeat claims that weak and vulnerable adults bring.

Most of the cases are not fought on merits but time delay. Only this year attempts have been made, unsuccessfully to argue that the Catholic Church are not liable for what priest does because he is fulfilling a calling of God without much guidance or support from the church (JGE v Diocese of Portsmouth).

We are mounting a campaign with the backing of support groups for a public enquiry in order to examine the way in which abuse is becoming an ever increasing discovery of evil within what in reality should be one of the pillars of our society. If each diocese has one of these safes with secret information in it, why should they remain secret accessible only the bishop? Why not hand over the contents to her majesty's police force so that justice can be done, and the abusive priests duly prosecuted.

The obvious conflict between the Canon law of the Catholic Church, and the civil law of England and Wales is a tension which is arguably irreconcilable. Each law has its own type of court which has different rules. Whilst it is not possible to sue for child abuse in the religious courts of the Roman Catholic Church, one can obtain a nullity of marriage, which means that the spouse can marry again in the Catholic Church. Alternatively the parties can, and often do get a civil divorce through the English Courts. Lawyers have been known to argue points of Canon Law in English Civil Cases. Thankfully such arguments rarely succeed in abuse cases, as Canon Law is not binding in the English Courts.

Will our campaign, which has aroused the interest of the Times newspaper and Esther Rantzen succeed? I certainly hope so. Having tried myself to persuade the English government to agree to a public enquiry to look into abuse in children's homes nationwide back in the late 1990's, and failed because of the enormous cost, and the lack of boundaries to the investigation, I doubt whether the government, in the age of austerity, cut backs, and legal aid wipe out, will agree. We can only remain hopeful.......

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