A senior Australian Catholic lawyer has outlined how the Vatican has used a culture of silence to prevent the world discovering the sordid details of its investigations into pedophile priests.
Canon law expert Sister Moya Hanlen, chancellor of Wollongong diocese in NSW, took to the witness stand at Sydney’s royal commission into child sex abuse on Friday.
The inquiry is looking specifically at the conduct of John Gerard Nestor who was defrocked in 2008 after becoming mired in sex abuse allegations.
Sister Hanlen revealed how in 2001, when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) took the lead in managing abuse investigations, rules were put in place preventing their details and those of punishments being published for at least 10 years.
“Does that mean effectively that the church throughout the world is not learning, as it happens, about decisions that are being made?” chair of the royal commission Justice Peter McClellan asked Sister Hanlen.
“It does seem to be that way,” she replied, adding that she expected some of the investigations from 2001 to start being made public soon.
Sister Hanlen also outlined how so-called ‘pontifical secrets’ – part of an omerta or silent culture among the church’s most senior identities – had been used to hush-up key details of abuse investigations.
Sister Hanlen said the Vatican has since changed its approach to pontifical secrets and child sexual abuse allegations but she conceded that pontifical secrets still exist.
“The church has striven, really, to handle this as best and most openly as able,” she added.
Sister Hanlen said she had been personally involved in referring four cases of sexual abuse to the Vatican.
One resulted in a clergyman being convicted. In another case the victim took his own life.
Sister Hanlen revealed that in one of the cases the church chose not to dismiss an elderly cleric because he was “physically very frail” and suffering dementia.
The church stripped him of the title “father” and ordered he live in a place of “high security” of the bishop’s choosing.
Earlier, Bishop of Wollongong Peter Ingham told the royal commission Nestor made “veiled threats” of legal action when Pope Benedict XVI defrocked him.
“I told him (Nestor) the situation and I said I would let the clergy know but I wasn’t planning to make it public,” Bishop Ingham said of the Pope’s decree.
“He said ‘I wish you would’ and I took that to mean that he’d probably try to sue me. “So I didn’t make it public generally.”
The last witness for the Nestor strand of the royal commission finished giving evidence on Friday afternoon.