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Canon Law Canon Law

Catholic canon (or Church) law can be altered by the pope, who is the only absolute monarch left in Europe, any time he pleases. Polls show that most Catholics do not agree with many of these Church rules, but they have no say. Canon Law conflicts with some human rights and laws based on them, such as mandatory reporting of child abuse. It is built around the concept of "avoiding scandal" (i.e., saving face for the Church), and "scandal", sometimes referred to as "gossip", is a crime (delict) in Canon Law. Pope Francis has even claimed that a global pandemic is preferable to open criticism of his Church: “Gossip is a plague worse than Covid.”

Canon (or church) law is a code of religious law. It is the Christian counterpart of Hindu law, (Jewish) halakha and (Muslim) sharia. Different Christian denominations have their own codes of kinds of canon law, including Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches. The Catholic Church has two. One of these codes is for the Roman (Latin rite) Church which is directly under the pope, and another code is for the 22 rites of the Eastern Catholic Churches, each with a patriarch who is subordinate to the pope. The Roman Church predominates in the countries where most of the agreements with the Vatican have been concluded. Therefore its Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuris Canonici) are the rules which are prescribed in many concordats. Through (state-funded) Church institutions, these rules can put constraints on the wider society.

UN and EU: Catholic canon law contravenes many human rights

Canon law has been criticised for contravening charters of human rights which insist on non-discrimination (art. 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the right to a fair trial (art. 11 of the UDHR and the more detailed art. 6 of the ECHR) and freedom from ill-treatment and torture (art. 5 of the UDHR).

Furthermore, canon law has also been found wanting by the UN body charged with upholding the rights of children. It noted in 2014 that

some of the provisions of the Canon Law are not in conformity with the provisions of the Convention [on the Rights of the Child], in particular those children’s rights to be protected against discrimination, violence and all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. (#13)

— Canon law can deny the right to a fair trial

Trials conducted according to canon law are not fair enough to be recognised in the rest of Europe. The European Court of Human Rights found in 2001 that the procedures of the Roman Rota, the Vatican appeals court responsible for marriage-annulment applications, failed to reach the standards required for a fair trial under article 6(1) of the European Convention and that, therefore, its judgments could not properly be recognized and enforced under Italian law.

The ECHR noted that in Rota proceedings witness statements were not provided to parties, thus depriving them of an opportunity to comment on them. The parties were not advised that they could appoint lawyers to appear for them, nor advised of the terms of the legal submissions made by the canon lawyer appointed by the court to argue against annulment. Finally, the parties were refused sight of a full copy of the Rota’s judgment, in which the ecclesiastical court set out its reasoning. That's why the Strasbourg court took the view that justice was not done in annulment proceedings before courts operating according to canon law. [1]

— Canon law promotes discrimination

Pointing to canon 1139, a UN committee asked the Vatican in 2014 “to promptly abolish the discriminatory classification of children born out of wedlock as illegitimate children”. It also urged the Vatican to condemn all forms of harassment, discrimination or violence against children based on their sexual orientation or the sexual orientation of their parents, and to support efforts at the international level for the decriminalization of homosexuality”. [2]

In addition, it criticised as lending itself to discrimination the claim, found repeatedly in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, that men and women should not be "equal", but merely "complementary" [3]. It said that "complementarity" and "equality in dignity" differ from the equality in law and practice provided for in article 2 of the Convention, These canon law concepts  "are often used to justify discriminatory legislation and policies". [4]

— Canon law can lead to torture and ill-treatment

The same UN committee urged the Vatican

to review its position on abortion which places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls and to amend Canon 1398 relating to abortion with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted. [5]

By automatically excommunicating anyone who has or cooperates in procuring an abortion, this canon lays on the worst punishment that the Vatican can manage, (after it stopped being able to get secular authorities to carry out the death penalty for it). [6] In addition, the Vatican actively campaigns to block any liberalisation of abortion laws or even access to contraception.

Article 5 of the UDHR prohibits torture and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights is similar. There are no exceptions or limitations on the right to be free of torture. Yet, as a UN rapporteur on torture noted,

abuse and mistreatment of women seeking reproductive health services can cause tremendous and lasting physical and emotional suffering, inflicted on the basis of gender. Examples of such violations include abusive treatment and humiliation in institutional settings; [...] denial of legally available health services such as abortion and post-abortion care; [...] violations of medical secrecy and confidentiality in health-care settings, such as denunciations of women by medical personnel when evidence of illegal abortion is found; and the practice of attempting to obtain confessions as a condition of potentially life-saving medical treatment after abortion. [7]

See also this eye-opening summary of the findings of the UN Committee against Torture at

Unable to deny that canon law and Church policies can lead to torture, the Vatican fell back on an ad hominem argument. It avoided addressing the issue by criticising the motives of the UN Committee, accusing it of "an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom". [8]

Questionable concepts in canon law: obedience”, “scandal and "secrecy" (now called "confidentiality")

Canon law gives the rules for running one of the most successful institutions on earth. Despite its name, however, this complicated set of rules has features that no democratic legal system would tolerate. It enjoins "obedience" (Latin, obedientia) to a person, rather than to a set of legal principles, which turns the notion of the rule of law on its head. And it also makes use of the cynical concept of "scandal" (Latin, scandalum) to excuse clerics from following the rules, if doing so would cause the Church bad publicity. As a result, canon law has a fondness for secrecy.

Obedience. A worldwide organisation that doesn't pay its clerical employees competitive rates has to rely on obedience. Clerics must promise to obey the pope and their immediate ecclesiastical superior (Canon 273) and the same holds for monks and nuns (Canon 601). Likewise, lay Catholics are bound to obey their "sacred pastors". (Canon 212 §1)

In 2014 a United Nations committee investigating child abuse tried to get the Vatican to admit responsibility by citing two other examples of the obligation to obedience. Canon 331 says that the pope "possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely" and Canon 590 says that priests are "bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience". However, the Vatican told the committee that it's the only one who's allowed to interpret Canon Law (#8). [9] 

Further bonds of obedience are forged by the Oath of Fidelity which is to be taken by all clerics and even laymen who teach religion or run Catholic institutions. (Canon 833) This oath involves directly promising to obey canon law, which, of course, contains these injunctions to obey one's ecclesiastical superior.

Scandal. The call to obey is strengthened by another demand of canon law — the remarkable moral obligation to avoid "scandal", in effect, anything that would damage the public image of the Church.

The laws of democracies have no such category. It is not a crime to defame any person or institution. Secular law only forbids slander or libel because these involve defamation that is untrue, in other words, the spreading of lies.

However, in canon law, you can commit an offence (a "delict") by creating a "scandal" even if you are telling the truth. Canon 1339 §2 forbids "behaviour which gives rise to scandal" (for the Church, of course) and Canon 1390 §2 forbids a cleric to "injure the good name of another".

Furthermore, Canon 1352 §2 lets a cleric give sacraments even to someone whose actions have led to his excommunication, if withholding them would cause a "scandal". Here maintaining the reputation of the Church is explicitly required, rather than acting in accordance with what the priest believes to be true and what the rest of canon law prescribes. In other words, you're to be duly punished — unless it would cause embarrassment to the Church. What kind of law code is that?

The Vatican's justification for this is that scandal poses a danger to people's souls and may even cause "spiritual death" (Canon 2284): "Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil." And, of course, in the Vatican view, anything which injures the reputation of the Church causes evil, for it imperils people's souls by instilling doubt about the institution.

Secrecy. Little wonder that an institution governed by a code of laws which prefers the avoidance of scandal to upholding the rest of the rules, has been involved in coverups. The behaviour of the Church in the face of child sex abuse by priests was summed up in an Irish report as characterised by "obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal". [10]

To avoid "scandal" secrecy is also required in the Church courts which are run according to canon law. According to the Murphy Report,

There is no doubt that the code of canon law places a very high value on the secrecy of the canonical process. This obligation of secrecy was described as a “secret of the Holy Office” in the 1922/1962 documents, the penalty for breach of which was excommunication and which breach was a sin which could only be absolved by a bishop. In hearings before the Commission, it was notable that Church officials preferred to refer to it now as a duty of confidentiality. Whichever it be, it is in stark contrast to the civil law which requires the public administration of justice. Moreover, an obligation to secrecy/confidentiality on the part of participants in a canonical process could undoubtedly constitute an inhibition on reporting child sexual abuse to the civil authorities or others. [11]

The secrecy needed to avoid the possibility of scandal was cited as a reason not to inform the police about priests who were believed to have sexually abused children. [12] And even the young Catholic victims were required by canon law to observe secrecy in their dealings with the Church. [13] In 2016 the guidelines for new Catholic bishops still didn't oblige them to report abuse unless they were in a country that required it. [14] And, in practice, even in countries, like the US that do require it, secrecy and obstruction of police enquiries seem to have been the rule. [15]

The implication is clear: whenever it can get away with it, the Catholic Church places its own rules above the laws which  are designed to uphold human rights.

Where does canon law it come from?

Canon law was assembled from the various decrees (canons) issued by Church councils, the letters of popes and the edicts of bishops. (This included the Canon episcopi of ca. 906, which established the first authoritative definition of witchcraft under Canon Law.) The compilation (and weeding) of this huge accumulation of documents resulted in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was revised in 1983 to yield the code that is presently in force.

Each new compilation gave the Church the chance to systematise this diverse collection and to quietly drop those items which, having long since served their purpose, might bring the Church into disrepute. Naturally, modern canon law no longer includes the canon issued by the Council of Salamanca in 1322 that forbade Christians to employ Jews as physicians, surgeons, or apothecaries. [14]

Anyone wanting a behind-the-scenes peek at earlier versions of the "sacred canons" can download Anti-Judaism in Canon Law and Nazi law or look at some early collections of canons that are online in English:

♦  Canons of the Council of Elvira, ca. 306 "These canons, all disciplinary, throw much light on the religious and ecclesiastical life of Spanish Christians on the eve of the triumph of Christianity." [15]  

♦  Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215. "Dogmas were defined points of discipline were decided, measures were drawn up against heretics, and, finally, the conditions of the next crusade were regulated." [16] (For a glimpse of Church policies, search for "Jews".)

♦  Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 1563. "Its main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it." [17]  

 These and many more canons piled up until Pius X issued a directive to put them in order, using as a model recent codes of civil law. [18] It was finished under Benedict XV, so is sometimes called the "Pio-Benedictine Code".

♦ 1917 code, the first code of canon law, compiled by Cardinal Pacelli who later became Pius XII. There is a French translation online and parts of the English translation by Edward N. Peters: The 1917 Or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law: In English Translation... (2001).

♦ 1983 revision, under Pope John Paul II reduced the number of offences carrying automatic excommunication, extended the grounds for annulment of marriage, removed the ban on marriage with non-Catholics, and banned trade-union and political activity by priests, (which clamped down on the worker-priests in Latin American who espoused liberation theology). [19]

Although both of these revisions of canon law were carried out by Church committees, that is not the only way to change it. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI revised the code using Apostolic Letters. These papal edicts have "the force of law". [20] Anything the pope doesn't like he can change with a pen stroke. This is a strange kind of law.

What is canon law for?

According to the Church, Catholic canon law (Latin: jus canonicum) “has for its object the wellbeing of souls”. [21] However, others have felt that it was more about control. Luther claimed that the sum of its teaching was, that "the Pope is God on earth, above all things, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and temporal; all things belong to the Pope, and no one dare ask, What doest thou?" [22] And even some Catholic scholars feel that it is, in practice, designed to further the power of the papacy. [23]

Canon law has proven useful whenever the church wants to keep the state out. Thus its rules are appealed to in order to justify punishment for “delicts” (crimes in canon law) which do not break the laws of the land, such as church employees remarrying. It is also applied secretly in cases of clerical child abuse, where involving the state courts would embarrass the church.

Naturally it’s a “delict” in canon law to embezzle church funds. A canonist notes that “canon law does not allow pastors to treat parish assets as their own property (Canons 1256, 1281-1289) nor to enrich themselves at parochial expense”. [24] However, when a bishop wants to be sure of getting back its money from a priest who has defrauded the Church, he has no hesitation about calling in the police. [25]

How did the earliest Church Councils decide which doctrines to pronounce true?

Doctrinal truth could be ascertained by supernatural proof: 

Doctrines were considered as established by the number of martyrs who had professed them, by miracles, by the confession of demons, of lunatics, or of persons possessed of evil spirits: thus, St. Ambrose, in his disputes with the Arians, produced men possessed by devils, who, on the approach of the relics of certain martyrs, acknowledged, with loud cries, that the Nicean doctrine of the three persons of the Godhead was true. But the Arians charged him with suborning these infernal witnesses with a weighty bribe. [26]

Exorcism is now making a comeback. [27] However, this time the Vatican is careful not to let it interfere with Church doctrine, over which it maintains firm control. In fact, exorcism has even been used to try to reinforce Church teaching. Fr. Gabriel Amorth, the Chief Exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, said that a case of demonic possession in 2014 was caused by Mexico legalising abortion. [28]

Where is Roman Catholic canon law accepted?

Only inside the Vatican and inside institutions of the Roman Catholic Church. Canon law is permitted to be used within national churches, either because it is understood to fall under constitutional or legislative guarantees of religious freedom or because its use has been specifically guaranteed by way of a concordat with the Vatican.

Ensuring the acceptance of canon law beyond the confines of the Vatican appears to be an important goal of its diplomacy. The concordat with Hitler, for example, (in Articles 1 and 33) put the many institutions of the German Church under canon law. Most concordats since then have continued to require acceptance of canon law in Church institutions. 

However, due to its conflict with the norms of human rights, canon law is not accepted internationally. (For instance, Canon 1083 §1 sets the minimum marriage age for girls at 14, and until the code was revised in 1983, it was only 12.) 

In fact, as mentioned above, in 2001 the European Court of Human Rights refused to accept a ruling by a Vatican court which was set up and run according to the norms of canon law. It found that canon law procedures fail to reach the standards of a fair trial as set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights.  [29] 

This means that the judgements of Catholic ecclesiastical courts cannot be recognised or enforced anywhere in the European Union.

How can canon law affect society?

Although the Vatican claims that concordats are meant to allow canon law to be used within the confines of the Church, in practice its influence can be extended to the wider society.

 Canon law can restrict the private lives of laymen. This can be achieved through Church-run social services. Because these are Church institutions, even when they are overwhelmingly subsidised by the state (in Germany, for example, to 98 per cent [30]), they can insist that their lay employees conform to canon law in their private lives. German courts have tended to uphold the churches, thus allowing employees to be fired from Catholic institutions for violating canon law even, for instance, marrying someone who has been divorced. Canon law intrusions into their private lives have become a condition of employment of more than a million people in Germany. And this is despite the fact that their employees, like the overwhelming majority of other Catholics, will have views that are more liberal than canon law. [31]

Canon law can help protect predators. Under canon law priests who abuse laymen â€• children â€• and then are  treated as sinners within the framework of Canon law, rather than as criminals within the framework of the state’s law. Even the “Norms” issued by the Vatican on 15 July 2010 don’t compel clerics to call in the police. According to Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the Vatican’s internal prosecutor in charge of handling sexual abuse cases, “It’s not for canonical legislation to get itself involved with civil law.” [32]

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, the veteran human rights lawyer and United Nations judge, urges the world to press the Catholic Church into abandoning canon law, in the light of its token “punishment” of priests who rape children.

The worst that can happen, other than an order to do penance, is “laicisation”; that is, defrocking, which permits the paedophile to leave the church and get a job in a state school or care home, without anyone knowing of this conviction. Canon law has no sex offenders registry.

While there can be no objection to an organisation disciplining members for a breach of arcane rules, there is every objection when those breaches amount to serious crimes and the organisation claims the right to deal with them internally without reporting them to the police.

And that is precisely what the Vatican has been doing: instead of reporting to law enforcement authorities those priests it knows to be guilty of raping children, and to be likely to rape more children in the future, it has been dealing with them under canon law, which demands utmost pontifical secrecy, moving them to other parishes and letting them off with admonitions and unenforceable penances … usually to say prayers for their victims. [33]

Canon law can be used to limit Church liability. It carefully defines Church organs as different "juridic persons", even distinguishing between the general and provincial chapters of a religious order -- and of course maintaining a safe legal separation from the pope. This allowed the Franciscans to deny any legal responsibility, since even their monstery in Rome, where the looted gold from Croatia was alleged to have been taken in 1946, was — wouldn't you know it — a separate "juridic person under canon law". [34]

Canon law binds others, but gives wiggle room to the Church 

While others may be constrained by canon law, the Vatican has arranged wiggle room for itself in terms of obeying its own code.

♦ Modern methods not used.  In addition to the canon law procedures which were found by the Euroepan Court of Human Rights to preclude a fair trial (see above) canon law poses further procedural problems. Canon law does not use cross-examination of witnesses, extensive questioning of the evidence, medical examinations or DNA testing. And, of course, there is no jury of laymen. This can make it far easier for a guilty priest to escape conviction than he would in a state court. Under canon law even the right to choose one's own lawyer ― which is part of the human right to a fair trial ― can be denied if the Church doesn't approve of the lawyer's personal opinions. [35]

 Short statutes of limitations.  This allows “delicts” in canon law to remain unpunished if this is desired. A canon law expert notes that, Canon 1362 establishes “a quite short statute of limitations for most ecclesiastical delicts, namely, just three years”. And he admits that “canonical defenses based on statutes of limitation are pretty easy to offer and pretty hard to defeat”. [36] This means that a bit of foot-dragging is all that is needed to prevent a Church trial ― especially when it can take male abuse victims 26 years on average to come forward. [37]

♦ The CDF can intervene.  Any proceedings that do get launched before the clock runs out can still be ended if the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) sticks its oar in. An “authentic doctrinal declaration” from the CDF is all that is needed to predetermine the outcome of a Church trial. For example, in 2011 a ruling from the CDF led to the acquittal of a priest who admitted paying for two abortions. [38] (This even prompted protests from conservative Catholics. [39])

♦ Only the Vatican can say what canon law means. In the end, canon law is made, changed and interpreted the way the Vatican wants. On every page of his blog the learned canonist, Dr. Edward Peters includes this humble disclaimer: “While I believe that the opinions expressed here are consistent with Canon 212 § 3, I submit all to the ultimate judgment of the Catholic Church.” [40] He will exercise his learning and his judgement only so far as this is allowed.

Even the UN committee inviestigating torture was expected to defer to the Vatican's interpretation of canon law, rather than drawing its own conclusions. In 2014 the UN experts tried to argue that the Vatican should take some responsibility for the actions of its priests, in view of their canonical obligations to obedience. But when they reminded the Vatican of Canon 331 and Canon 590 (both quoted above), the Vatican refused to even discuss it, telling the committee that they had no business trying to interpret canon law. The Vatican "reserves to itself the exclusive competence to interpret its internal fundamental norms". [41] Only the Vatican can say what canon law means.

♦ The pope has the last word. Canon law proceedings can be blocked by the pope. The notorious child molester who founded the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, was excused by Benedict XVI from having to undergo even a trial under canon law and, instead, simply admonished “to lead a reserved life of prayer and penitence” [42]  Furthermore, the pope “can intervene at any stage of the judicial process”. [43]

Even canon law judgements can be set aside by the pope, as happened in the case of former papal butler Paolo Gabriele who admitted to stealing Vatican documents and leaking them to an Italian journalist. After a canon law trial he was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but was given a full pardon by Pope Benedict XVI two months later. [44]

And, if all this is not enough, the pope can change the rules whenever he wants. Canon law, the universal law of the Church, can be altered at any time by Europe’s last absolute monarch. [45] He can also make a decree (called a chirograph) which has the force of law within the Curia.

In other words, this whole system of “law” can be changed or even put aside on the whim of a single person. Although canon law can bind both the faithful and any state that enters a concordat with the Vatican, in practice this only goes one way. Through its elastic legal system and its non-binding guidelines the Church retains full freedom to manoeuvre.

Canon law only began to be applied to notorious paedophile forty years later, after public outrage and threat of lawsuits

The opportunistic application of canon law is illustrated by the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who is accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys at a school in Wisconsin. As early as the mid-1950s a priest had informed church officials that deaf children had complained that Father Murphy was molesting them, yet no canon law investigation was begun. Finally, forty years later, when the Milwaukee archdiocese was facing the threat of lawsuits and the public was hearing wrenching testimony from deaf adults who said they had been abused by Father Murphy, the Bishop began to wonder if it might be prudent to conduct a canonical trial to remove him from the priesthood.

In 1996 Archbishop Weakland sent two letters to Cardinal Ratzinger, who headed the CDF, and one to the Apostolic Signatura, the Church’s highest court, asking for guidance on whether to conduct a canonical trial of Father Murphy. It took eight months for Cardinal Ratzinger’s second-in-command to instruct the Milwaukee archdiocese to begin a process which could result in defrocking the priest.

The next year, in the spring of 1998, still undecided about the wisdon of a canonical trial, there was a meeting at the Vatican to try to determine the best strategy for damage limitation. The minutes of the meeting said that a trial would be difficult because of the problem of getting proof without increasing the “scandal”. The minutes said Archbishop Weakland should limit Father Murphy’s ministerial duties instead. Archbishop Weakland, the minutes said, “reaffirmed the difficulty he will have explaining this to the community of the deaf” ― and, undoubtedly, to the general public, as well.

It was finally decided that a trial would be a lesser of the two evils. However, a few months later, the Archbishop of Milwalkee had the canonical trial stopped, as the public relations problem for the Church seemed about to resolve itself. Two days later, on August 21, Father Murphy died. [46]  


♦  Religious law vs. human rights: child brides
♦  Anti-Judaism in Canon Law and Nazi law
♦  Vatican legal smokescreen on human rights: Canon Law, diplomatic immunity, etc.
♦  Canon law in action: Was the Papal State a perfect society?
♦  How far can German churches discriminate against more than a million employees? 
♦  Europe tells German churches to respect employees’ private lives.
♦  Religious courts in England
♦  Prof. Guenther Lewy, “Catholic political ideology: the union of theory and practice”. This is Chapter 12 (the final one) of The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, 1964. 
♦  Roman Rota (the second highest Canon Law court)
♦  Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican's top Canon Law court)

Further reading

Other information about canon law can be found on websites by canonists, such as Edward N. Peters at and “Selected Reference Documents related to the Code of Canon Law prepared by Father Jason Gray of the Diocese of Peoria” at


1. Pellegrini v. Italy, 2001-VIII, Application No: 30882/96

2. Committee on the Rights of the Child, "Concluding observations on the second periodic report of the Holy See", 25 February 2014, #26

3. CRC, 25 February 2014, #27.

4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992,
§ 372 (complementary as masculine and feminine)
§ 2333 (complementarity in marriage)
§ 2334 (equal personal dignity) 
§ 2357 (gays lack complementarity) 

5. CRC, 25 February 2014, #55.

6. See footnote 5 at

7. "Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez", UN, Human Rights Council, Twenty-second session, 01 February 2013, #46.

8. "Holy See's Response to UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Recommendations", Zenit, 05 February 2014. 

9. Holy See's Comments to Observations From UN Committee on Rights of the Child
Zenit, 26 September 2014. 

10. "Murphy Report" (Commission of Investigation Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, July 2009; released November 26, 2009), Chapter 1 — Overview, 1.32. 

For a glimpse of how this avoidance of scandal works out in practice, see Chapter 20.102-106.  

11. "Murphy Report", Chapter 4.82.

12. "Murphy Report", Chapter 1 — Overview, 1.32

13. "Murphy Report", Chapter 1 — Overview, 1.33 

14. "Catholic bishops not obliged to report clerical child abuse, Vatican says", Guardian, 10 February 2016.

Vatican guide says ‘not necessarily’ bishop’s duty to report suspects to police despite Pope Francis’s vows to redress Catholic church’s legacy of child abuse

John L. Allen Jr., "What new Catholic bishops are, and aren’t, being told on sex abuse", Crux Now, 7 February 2016.

“According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds”


Pennsylvania Diocese Leaders Knew of Sex Abuse for Decades, Grand Jury Says

Richard Pérez-Peña and Laurie Goodstein
NYT, 1 March 2016

Over four decades, at least 50 priests and other church employees molested hundreds of children in a small Roman Catholic diocese in central Pennsylvania, and in many cases their superiors knew of the abuses but did not remove the priests or notify law enforcement, according to a grand jury report released on Tuesday. [1 March 2016]
Grand jury: 2 bishops hid sex abuse of hundreds of children

AP, 1 March 2016



14. E. H. Lindo, The History of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, London, 1848. p.130. Google reprint 

15. "Council of Elvira", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909.

Text at

16. "Fourth Lateran Council (1215)", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910. 

Text at

17. "Council of Trent", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912. 

Text at

18. Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD, “Cardinal Gasparri’s letter Perlegisti:Translation and Brief Commentary”,  Canon Law Society of Great Britain in Ireland Newsletter, June 2004, pp. 106-107. 

19. “Canon Law”, Hutchinson Encyclopedia.

20. Hannah C. Dugan, “Cracking the Code: Amending Canon Law to Exclude Sexual Abuse Offenders from Roman Catholic Ordination”, August 2013, part IV.

21. “Canon Law”, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910. 

22. Martin Luther, quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Revised edition, 1890, Volume 7, Chapter 3, § 48.

23. Edward Bell, [Catholic] Brescia University College, “Catholicism and Democracy: A Reconsideration”, Journal of Religion and Society, volume 10, 2008. 

According to John Cornwell, the main purpose of the Code was to enlarge the pope’s control of the Church, including his power to suppress dissent.

24. Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD, “Asserting a canonical defense is one thing; proving it another”, In the Light of the Law, 03 March 2008.

25. A few examples of bishops calling in the police to investigate priesst suspected of defrauding their dioceses:

“Florida priest pleads guilty over fraud”
RTE News, 22 January 2009

“Priest Charged With Embezzlement, Paid For Male Escorts”
PI Newswire, 12 July 2010

“Police Say Priest Embezzled $400k from Church”
NBC, 9 February 2011

“Police: Swissvale Priest Stole $143K Over 10 Years”
WPXI News, 8 September 2011

“Senior priest faces fraud probe”
New Zealand Herald, 25 September 2011 

26. John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, 1875, Chapter 8. 

27. "A modern pope gets old school on the Devil", Washington Post, 10 May 2014. 

"Famous exorcist says Pope's simple prayer cast out demon", Catholic News Agency, 24 May 2013.

28. Gyles Brandreth, "An Interview With Fr Gabriele Amorth - The Church's Leading Exorcist",
Free Republic, August 2001. 

Edward N. Peters, "Review of  Gabriel Amorth,  An Exorcist Tells His Story (Ignatius, 1999)",, 3 January 2013. [The learned canonist begins, "We need a good book on extraordinary demonic activity, since there has been so much of it lately..."]

29. In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights found that the procedures of the Rota Romana, the ecclesiastical appeals court responsible for marriage-annulment applications, failed to reach the standards required for a fair trial under article 6(1) of the European Convention and that, therefore, its judgments could not properly be recognized and enforced under Italian law. (Pellegrini v. Italy (2002) 35 EHRR 2)

Technically, however, the European Court was obliged to fault Italy for enforcing the judgement of the Vatican court. This is because the Vatican couldn't be censured for violating the European Convention on Human Rights, since it hadn't signed it.

30. Carsten Frerk, “German taxpayers subsidise 98% of faith-based social services”, Concordat Watch. 2005. 

31. Catholics for Choice, “Catholics & Choice”. 

This is a continually-updated list of results of polls taken worldwide which reveal what most Catholics really think. In expressing these views, Catholics show that they take seriously the admonition in the Catechism that “a human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” (CCC, §1790)

32. Rachel Donadio, “Vatican Revises Abuse Process, but Causes Stir”, New York Times, 15 July 2010. 

33. Paola Totaro, “Call to treat Vatican as a rogue state: Lawyer Geoffrey Robertson says the church must abandon canon law”, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 2010. 

34. United States District Court, N.D. California. Case No. C 99-04941 MMC (EDL). (Case 3:99-cv-04941-MMC Document 273 Filed 2006-03-20) Declaration of Professor Settimo Carmignani Caridi in support of the defendant IOR's motion to dismiss fourth amended complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, 28 July 2006, pp. 15-16.

35. Raphael Vassallo, “Church-State agreement review ‘a matter of human rights’ – MP”, Malta Today, 23 April 2013.

36. Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD, “First thoughts on the Manel Pousa case”, In the Light of the Law, 16 March 2011. 

37. “Reported Cases of Sexual Abuse Against Men Triple in England and Wales”, New York Times, 2 February 2018.

38. “Priest who paid for young girls’ abortions acquitted by bishop”, Life Site News, 19 April 2011. 

39. “Human Life International protests acquittal of priest who paid for abortions”, Life Site News, 3 May 2011. 

40. Upper right hand side, e.g.:

41. “Holy See's Comments to Observations From UN Committee on Rights of the Child”,
Zenit, 26 September 2014, #8.

42. “No Trial, No Punishment for Accused Molester Says Vatican”, ABC News, 19 May 2006.

43. “Former Papal Assistant Charged With Aggravated Theft”, Zenit, 13 August 2012.

44. John L. Allen, Jr, “Vatican trial for Józef WesoÅ‚owski a pivotal moment for Pope Francis”, Crux, 7 July 2015.

45. The Vatican City State is the last absolute monarchy in Europe, though a few others survive elsewhere, like the Sultanate of Brunei in Borneo and the Kingdom of Swaziland.

46. Laurie Goodstein, “Events in the Case of an Accused Priest”, New York Times, 31 March 2010.

Appendix: The abuse scandal leaves Canon Law unchanged
Vatican directive (2011) still discourages reporting to police 

In May 2011 a Circular Letter was sent around to bishops to advise them on how to treat child abuse by priests. (It is published twice on the Vatican website, as if it was considered important for public relations.) [45] This directive turns out to contain a number of ways for Churchmen to evade the jurisdiction of civil law â€• still.

 First, it says opaquely, “the responsibility for dealing with the delicts of sexual abuse of minors by clerics belongs in the first place to the Diocesan Bishop.” That appears to let the bishop decide whether allegations are plausible, thus giving him absolute power to suppress them, as has happened may times since the 1993 guidelines came out. In the latest examples to come to light, the bishops in Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo. never informed their sexual abuse “review boards” about the cases, let alone the police. [46]

 Second, it says that “saving the approval of the Holy See, when a Conference of Bishops intends to give specific norms, such provisions must be understood as a complement to universal law and not replacing it.” So apparently any bishops’ guidelines about reporting abuse to civil authorities in countries where this is mandatory can be overridden by Church law and Vatican directives. 

 And it lays out two further conditions for reporting suspected abuse to the police:

Specifically, without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum, the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed. 

Since “without prejudice” is a legal term meaning “without abandonment of a claim, privilege, or right”, this sounds as if the “sacramental internal forum”, the Church court, can continue to take precedence over any state courts.

 There also appears to be another restriction contained in this passage. An obligation to inform the police is mentioned only for countries with mandatory reporting, that is to say, where there is “civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes”. However, given the rarity of mandatory reporting laws covering child abuse, this isn’t much of a practical limitation. It leaves the overwhelming majority of the world’s children unprotected, since only three nations, the US, Canada and Australia, have robust laws about “duty to report” [47] and even then

the terms of these laws differ in significant ways, both within and between these nations, with the differences tending to broaden or narrow the scope of cases required to be reported and by whom. [48] 

The admonition to report suspected abuse only in those countries that require it, sounds less like an attempt to protect children than to protect the Vatican by formally telling the bishops not to break the law. In view of these four elastic preconditions, one wonders if this circular letter actually commits the Church to anything at all. SNAP, the “Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests”, which had 23 years of experience doubted that the been dealing with lists ten reasons why they are convinced that the 2011 guidelines will not make much difference, and charging that

The guidelines are being written now only because the crisis has reached the Pope's doorstep (due to investigative reporting on his own role concealing cases and due to increasing numbers and success of civil lawsuits). [49] 

Notes for the appendix

46. Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “Circular Letter to assist episcopal conferences in developing guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by clerics”, 3 May 2011. Also at:  IN LINGUA  INGLESE

47. Laurie Goodstein, “Bishops Won’t Focus on Abuse Policies”, New York Times, 14 June 2011.

Joann Lovigl, “Judge: Try

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