As I wrote here in this space from my Italian trip, the Vatican seems to be living in a dream world when it comes to the US sex abuse scandal. Pope Francis and his team appear to be willfully blind to the on-the-ground reality. They seem to be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to defend the Church’s lavender mafia from scrutiny. A Francis insider was reliably reported to me to have said privately that the McCarrick Affair could cause the Church to “implode.” His public comments — he’s someone you would know — do not reflect this concern at all. In fact, just the opposite. He’s pushing the line that this is merely an American thing, exaggerated and promoted by Americans who don’t like Francis. But I know that deep down, he understands how dangerous this is for the Church.
This e-mail just came in from a reader:
As an attorney, I can see at least one potential path that events could take if the Vatican continues to stonewall the abuse cases, including its role in covering up those cases, and it is not pretty. It runs something like this:
First, U.S. attorneys general open up multiple investigations on the child abuse cases based on the Pennsylvania model. The attorneys general in New York and Missouri have already started such investigations (with New York already issuing subpoenas), and the attorney general in New Jersey has set up a hotline. Attorneys general in five other states (Illinois, Kentucky, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Florida) have taken initial steps to begin an investigation or are publicly contemplating such an investigation.
Second, at some point, one or more of those investigations will determine that they need or want information from the Vatican to pursue their investigations. They will reach that conclusion when it becomes apparent to them either that the Vatican instructed one or more U.S. bishops not to publicly disclose certain information about recalcitrant priests or that the Vatican took other steps to cover up the scandal. After several fruitless efforts to get the Vatican to co-operate with their investigation(s), they could issue subpoenas to the Vatican to produce documents and/or witnesses.
Those investigators will know that the subpoenas are not legally enforceable — under international law, the Vatican is a separate country and can assert sovereign immunity to block legal process from another country. But the investigators will proceed to issue the subpoenas in order to increase public, political, and legal pressure on the Vatican to co-operate.
Third, the Vatican will assert sovereign immunity to block the subpoenas. There will be an immediate public uproar against the Church for continuing to block the investigations.
The damage done to the Church from this scenario — and I think there is a reasonable possibility that it could actually happen — would be immense and lasting. And even if it never comes to a legal battle over a state’s subpoena power, the potential for a battle between some state’s attorney general and the Vatican is real and potentially very destructive. Everyone in the world will be watching. Any continuous and sustained efforts coming from the Vatican to stymie these investigations will severely harm the Church.
It is entirely possible that law in the U.S. could move in directions that would undermine the bishops’ legitimate authority over their priests and their dioceses. I would not be surprised to see state legislatures or courts begin to impose burdensome legal requirements or restrictions on the bishops that would make it more difficult for them or for the Church to function. Nor do I think that it would be possible to contain the damage solely to the United States. With the whole world watching and many countries dealing with their own Catholic sex abuse scandals, it is entirely possible the harm will extend to other countries as well.
Nor would it surprise me to see courts or legislatures, following the suggestion of the the Australian Royal Commission, make it a felony for a priest to fail to report incidents of abuse that he learns about from someone’s confession. Non-Catholics generally do not understand the importance of the seal of confession, and it has been potentially vulnerable if placed under sufficient legal and social pressure. If the Vatican continues to insist on stonewalling, it will open up the very real possibility that priests and bishops will go to jail not just for committing or covering up sex abuse, but for protecting the Faith against the power of the State. And, like the other possible developments outlined in this email, that damage might extend to countries outside the United States. Where that story will end, we do not know.
Has the Vatican even considered these possibilities? Do they understand how serious this situation really is? It is long passed time for them to come to terms with this reality and respond accordingly.
Sooner or later, reality will assert itself in an undeniable way. But by then, the damage to the Church’s legal, moral, and social standing will have been immense. One marvels at how desperate these men in Rome are to shield themselves and their dealings from the light.