“There is no other remedy,” said the bishop. “There is no other way.” The bishop was the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Juan Ignacio Arrieta, and the thing for which there is no other remedy nor any other way about, is the Church’s current practice of conducting secret trials.
There’s good news and bad news in that.
He was speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, called to present the reform of the Church’s universal law governing penal sanctions – Book VI of the Code of Canon Law – accomplished by means of an Apostolic Constitution, Pascite gregem Dei(links to Latin text, as the English translation apparently isn’t ready yet, though the new version of Book VI is found here), in answer to a question from Crux’s Rome Bureau Chief, Ines San Martin.
San Martin noted that “repair of scandal” is one of the purposes Pope Francis identifies as among the reasons for which sanctions are necessary. Then, she asked: “How can scandal be repaired if proceedings and outcomes are kept secret?”
Now, “repair of scandal” is something of a term of art. It refers to restoring the semblance of good order after the appearance of something that is (or has created) an obstacle to the progress of the Gospel.
Think: a priest raping a child or abusing his power to seduce an adult in his spiritual care, or stealing money, or covering up for another cleric who did the same, or even just failing to report such criminal activity (or reasonable suspicion of it) or properly to investigate or prosecute it when it is the cleric’s job to do so.
In reality, say the highest-ranking officials at the Vatican’s own department for saying what laws mean and what they do, whether or not to tell people about how Church authorities have exercised their power in these regards is at best a matter of judicial discretion. That’s just the way it is. That’s just the way it has to be.
In his own part of the answer to San Martin’s question, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, Archbishop Filippo Iannone, had said: “The repair of scandal should be foreseen in the sentence [of the court], itself.”
Archbishop Iannone went on to explain that “it is the judge, who, in the measure to which he ascertains the crime and condemns the accused, decides also the modalities by which the condemnation might be rendered public, and then also establishes what might be the proper damages to be paid — which is reparation.”
The Secretary – Bishop Arrieta – added: “This is one of those things that must be evaluated case-by-case.”
The good news for the faithful, who are scandalized by Church leaders’ toxic love affair with secrecy, is that Bishop Arrieta is patently wrong.
Vatican City has shown itself capable of making its criminal trials meaningfully public on several recent occasions, including the blockbuster abuse-and-coverup trial currently underway. Civil jurisdictions the world over, publish verdicts, judicial opinions, and penal sentences, all as a matter of course.
Even Cardinal Pell’s infamous railroad trial in Victoria – conducted under a gag rule the judge ostensibly imposed to protect the accused in view of a second trial that never happened – while plagued by broadly shared concerns over its procedural integrity, was nonetheless meaningfully public.
Trials at ecclesiastical court are not.
Canonical tribunals do not publish either the names of the accused or the lists of charges against them. They do their business in secret. Canonical processes are basically paper affairs. If Church authorities report verdicts at all, they do so in vague terms.
The secrecy of the Church’s judicial processes hurts the innocent, while the opacity of her general practices tends to protect evildoers. Together, the Church’s secrecy and opacity undermine public confidence in her ability to deliver anything like justice.
“That is something Church leaders from Pope Francis on down need to consider urgently and soberly,” I wrote when Cardinal George Pell finally received vindication from his country’s high court.
Apparently, Church leaders have considered the matter, and decided there’s nothing to do about it.