Monday, 26 July 2010


1. It has been suggested in various Newspaper Articles, Media interviews, Blogs etc that documents revealed during the Catholic Church child abuse scandal have implicated the Church in general and Pope Benedict in particular in a criminal conspiracy to facilitate child abuse or alternatively to obstruct justice by failing to report allegations of child abuse to public authorities.

2. In looking at these allegations I shall principally rely on broad legal principles drawing on examples within English Common or statute law and international law. Though every country has its own particular laws and legal system and the details differ from country to country it is the case that legal broad principles are generally the same across civilised legal systems. In addition by definition if something done by the Church could be held to constitute a crime within one country only by reason of the specific wording of the law of that country then by definition it can hardly constitute an international criminal conspiracy spread across several countries.

3. The Church Documents I shall deal with are “Crimen Solicitonis” issued to all Bishops of the Church in 1962 and “De Delictis Gravioribus” also issued to all Bishops of the Church in 2001 and signed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger; this document was accompanied by a covering letter Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela signed by Pope John Paul II. I shall refer to these documents as the “1962 letter” and the “2001 letter”. As a side point I note that the 2001 letter was published in the 2001 issue of the Vatican Year Book Acta Apostolicae Sedis for 2001 which is a document that has always been publicly available and not secret, and the 2001 letter specifically refers to the 1961 letter


4. In English Statute Law the crime of conspiracy requires two or more persons to agree to carry out a course of conduct which “will necessarily amount to or involve the commission of any offence”
( Section 1(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1977) whilst the Common Law definition of conspiracy accepted by the US Supreme Court in Iannelli v. United States, 420 U.S. 770, 777 (1975), United States v. Shabani, 513 U.S. 10 (1994) involves “an agreement to commit an unlawful act” and a21 of the Canadian Criminal Code requires “an intention in common to carry out an unlawful purpose”

5. In his Guardian Article suggesting that the Pope should be arrested when he visits Britain Geoffrey Robinson QC accused the Pope and the Church of “aiding and abetting sex with minors.”. Under English Law “aiding and abetting” requires the accused person to perform “an act capable of encouraging or assisting the commission of an offence” either “intending” or “believing” that the act will “encourage or assist its commission” (ss44 - 46 Serious Crime Act 2007)
similar provisions apply in the criminal laws of Canada Australia and the USA.

6. Therefore in order to have the basis for a criminal prosecution either of conspiracy or aiding and abetting it is necessary to prove that the defendant (in this case the Pope and/or other Church officials) did acts (actus reus) which helped sex offenders to commit their crimes and/or to evade justice and that the intention (mens rea) of the Church was to assist in the commission of those crimes or the evasion of justice. In order for there to be a conviction for criminal conspiracy or aiding and abetting, under English law,there must be a deliberate intention that a crime should be committed (Callow v Tillstone (1900) 83 LT 411) and my understanding of the law in USA Australia and Canada is that the principle is the same in those jurisdictions.

7. The importance of intention to assist in a breaking of the law (mens rea) was emphasised in the House of Lords case of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority [1986] AC 112 where the House of Lords held that supplying contraceptive advise to under 16 year old girls did not constitute the criminal offence of aiding and abetting unlawful sexual intercourse even though (from a lay point of view) that would be the natural and inevitable consequence of the doctors actions

8. Therefore in order to prosecute the Pope or the Church on the basis of the 1962 or 2001 letters it is necessary to show that the intention behind the letters was to assist crime and careful reading of both letters show that they were in fact mainly aimed at dealing with acts which were not criminal

1962 & 2001 LETTERS

9. When examining the two letters it is important to bear in mind that they apply to the Church throughout the world and as such attempts to apply consistent internal Church rules to countries with a range of different legal rules and cultures. In the 2001 letter for example the age of a minor is set as up to 18 whilst across the world the legal age of consent for sexual intercourse can range from 13 in Spain or Nigeria to 18 in Swaziland or Idaho; similarly whilst consensual homosexual sex between adults is now legal in most countries it is still illegal in many countries and indeed was illegal in England until 1967

10. More importantly the two letters only deal with the internal procedures to be adopted by the Church in deciding whether a Priest accused of acts (which might or might not be criminal in the country in which they occur) should be disciplined by the Church and possibly removed from the priesthood. Nowhere in the letters is there any instruction that the civil authorities (Police) should not be told about allegations of criminal behaviour.

11. There is, of course, the criticism that neither letter gives direct and clear instructions that the civil authorities must be informed however that ignores the fact, already mentioned, that many allegations may be criminal in one jurisdiction but not criminal in another and many of the acts mentioned in the 1962 and 2001 letters are not criminal in any jurisdiction. For example a Priest who has sex with a 14 year old girl in Spain does not commit a crime but would in England, a Priest who has an adulterous heterosexual relationship would not commit a crime in England but would commit a crime in Iran which could lead to him and the woman being stoned to death, similarly with homosexual behaviour by a Priest. All of those would be regarded by the Church as offences contrary to the two letters but would be regarded in entirely different lights by law enforcement officials in different countries.

12. It is also important to remember that the 1962 letter was issued in 1962, when consensual interacial sex was illegal in much of the United States as well as in South Africa, when Communism ruled much of the world and when a person who attended Church could lose their job if the Communist authorities became aware. 1962 was only 4 years before the start of the Cultural Revolution in China when Churches were attacked and Priests killed, only 6 years after the crushing of the Hungarian uprising and 6 years before the crushing of the Prague Spring. In those circumstances it is hardly surprising if Church instructions did not require that all State authorities be automatically informed of any allegations made against a priest.

13. In addition it should be remembered that the 1962 letter was a reissue of an earlier letter issued in 1922 and that year must also be seen in its historical context. The Bolsheviks had just finalised their grip on power and persecution of the Church and Church authorities was intense. In Mexico Anti-clerical violence and state sanctioned murder of priests was beginning (dramatised in The Power and the Glory by Graham Green)and China was in chaos being ruled either by Warlords or Japanese occupation. Once again it is unrealistic to expect that an instruction to the Church throughout the world would give instructions that in every country the civil authorities should automatically be informed that a criminal allegation had been made. After all how does a Bishop report a crime to the Police when being a Bishop is itself a crime ?

Criminal Conspiracy

14. Though the main attention on the 1962 letter has concentrated on the issue of Child Abuse any suggestion that it is intended to assist in a conspiracy of child abuse has to take account of the fact that the 1962 letter primarily deals with “Solicitation in the Confessional” which would not constitute a criminal offence in most legal systems. The letter then mentions in para 71 Homosexual relationships, and deals in para 73 with sexual relationships with minors or with animals and applies the same rules to those offences as it has applied to the (non criminal) practice of solicitation in the confessional.

15. Therefore if the 1962 letter is to be regarded as evidence of a criminal conspiracy that is inconsistent with the fact that its primary focus is on an activity which is not criminal because if the primary focus is on an activity which (though reprehensible) is legal then there is no evidence that the intention of the document or the drafters of the document was to aid unlawful acts.

16. This particular analysis is strengthened by the 2001 letter which besides the offences listed in the 1962 letter also deals with such non-criminal acts as “the taking or retaining for a sacrilegious purpose, or the throwing away of the consecrated species (Host)” (Art 2 1.1 “consecration for a sacrilegious purpose of one matter (ie bread or wine) without the other in a Eucharistic celebration “ Art 2.2. In simple terms it is impossible to establish a case of criminal conspiracy based on a document which is primarily focused on dealing with acts which are not in themselves criminal.


17. An important part of the allegations involving the 1962 and 2001 letters involve the “oath of Secrecy” required of those who give evidence or participate in one of the Churches own Courts dealing with allegations against a Priest. As a lawyer in the Anglo Saxon Common Law tradition I can understand that criticism however once again it is important to remember that both letters apply throughout the world and therefore to countries with vastly different legal traditions. In Portugal for example Article 86 of the Portuguese penal code imposes “Judicial Secrecy” on all witnesses in a criminal investigation, a legal rule which seemed incomprehensible to the British Media during the Madeleine McCann case

18. Similarly in England prior to a trial there are extensive legal restrictions on what the media can report but no such restrictions apply in the United States

19. More pertinently perhaps it must be remembered that in general Church Tribunals have no legal standing within their individual countries and without a promise of secrecy it may be difficult if not impossible for them to operate. If, for example, a Priest was facing an allegation of sexual abuse which, for whatever reason, was not being prosecuted in the state courts then witnesses who gave evidence could potentially be sued by him for slander or, in some countries, possibly even prosecuted for criminal libel. In other jurisdictions the party making the complaint could possibly face execution (if the allegation related to an adulterous or homosexual relationship) or social ostracism. Requiring an oath of secrecy can therefore be justified as providing both witnesses and also the accused with some protection for their reputation and, in some countries, their personal safety.

20. In England Police Disciplinary Tribunals sit in secret (Reg 32(1) Police (Conduct) Regulations 2008). In April 2010 it was discovered that 12 years previously a Police Constable had been convicted of assaulting a suspect but had not been dismissed, he subsequently went on to seriously assault a 19 year old female suspect. Though there was criticism of the Police there was no suggestion that the decision by the (secret) Disciplinary Tribunal was in any way illegal


21. Church authorities in individual countries can be criticised for responding inadequately to allegations of child abuse and those situations have to be dealt with country by country but the main allegation being made against the Church and the Pope is an allegation of criminal conduct and that allegation is not justified by any proper analysis of the facts, the evidence or the law.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Sharia Law in Britain - How Significant ?

The One Law For All Campaign has recently held a demonstration in Trafalgar Square opposing the spread of Sharia Based Tribunals in Britain and has issued a booklet Sharia Law in Britain a Threat to One Law for All and Equal Rights. Though I have sympathy with some of the objections raised by the campaign I do consider that the issue is rather more complex and subtle than they suggest

Following the demonstration Maryam Namazie who directs the campaign wrote an Article in The Guardian and I was asked to write one in response I hope that both articles are a worthwhile contribution to this complex debate that can inspire very strong feelings on both sides

Maryam Namazie - The Guardian 5 July 2010
Neil Addison - The Guardian 8 July 2010

Monday, 5 July 2010

Doe v Holy See - Not as Important as it appears

Many media outlets have been announcing that the Vatican has been stripped of its Diplomatic Immunity by the US Supreme Court of which this Article in the Guardian Newspaper “Without its immunity, can the Vatican survive ?” is fairly typical. Unlike just about everyone else who seems to have commented on the subject I decided to find the facts first and comment afterwards and the actual legal facts are quite different from what is being reported.

Firstly the US Supreme Court has not made any decision for or against the Vatican, or The Holy See as it is more properly termed, what the Court has done is to refuse to review a decision made by a lower Court namely the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and this is simply reported on the Supreme Court website as “Certiorari Denied” along with a large number of other refusals of “cert”. I will deal with the implications of the Supreme Court refusing cert later but for the moment will look at the 9th Circuit decision itself Doe v Holy See No 06-35563

I am, of course, not an American Lawyer but the US and England share a common legal heritage and approach as is well demonstrated in this case which followed exactly the same legal principles applied in an English “strike out” application. A strike out application occurs before a trial and requires the Court to assume, FOR THE SAKE OF THE ARGUMENT, that everything alleged by the plaintiff is true which is exactly the assumption the 9th Circuit was required to make when it was considering this appeal. It is important to be clear on this point, there has been no trial regarding Does allegations or assertions and all the legal proceedings so far have been entirely questions of law.

In the case Doe ( a pseudonym) is alleging that he was abused around about 1965 by a Priest Father Ronan (who is now dead); whilst it is difficult to see how there can be a fair trial on something alleged to have been done 45 years ago that was not the issue before the 9th Circuit. In his claim Doe sued two US Diocese and also Ronans Religious Order which would be the normal defendants in this type of case. What made the case unique was that Doe also sued the Holy See on two basis namely that the Holy See was vicariously liable for the (alleged) acts of the 2 Diocese and the Order which he claimed to be the “agents or instrumentalities” of the Holy See, it was also alleged that Father Ronan was an “employee” of the Holy See and as such the Holy See was vicariously Liable for Ronans (alleged) acts.

Now it is important to understand that the 9th Circuit accepted completely that the Holy See was a Sovereign State under International and US law and as such was entitled to exactly the same diplomatic and legal immunity enjoyed by every other Sovereign State, no more and no less. Under US law no sovereign state enjoys blanket immunity from suit and every sovereign state can be sued under the provisions of the “Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act” (Wikipedia summary here) for Torts (Civil Wrongs) committed by its employees unless they are engaged in acts “peculiar to sovereigns” eg acting as an Ambassador or Consul.

To make a comparison, and without getting too technical, if an employee of the UK Government in the USA sexually assaulted a minor whilst visiting an American School in the course of his or her duties then the UK Government could be sued in the American Courts for damages arising from that Tort however that would not affect the status of the UK as a Sovereign independent state nor would it affect the general legal principle that UK Embassy staff cannot be sued for acts committed in carrying out their official duties. Similarly a British Trade mission could be sued for Torts committed by its staff in the course of their duties because the work of a Trade mission is not work “peculiar to sovereigns” [NB 'Sovereigns' in this context means any foreign ruler or Government whether republican or monarchical]

The 9th Circuit made no decision as to whether Father Ronan had or had not done anything wrong nor did they decide whether he was or was not an Employee of the Holy See. As I have already mentioned, there has not yet been a trial and no examination of any evidence and for the purposes of deciding whether the Holy See COULD be liable the 9th Circuit had to accept the bare assertion by Doe that Father Ronan was an employee of the Holy See. On that basis they decided that if (and it is a very big IF) Ronan was an employee of the Holy See then the Holy See would be vicariously liable for his actions. Whilst the question of whether Fr Ronan was an Employee of the Holy See will depend on the exact definition of “employee” in Oregon law it is up to Doe to prove that Fr Ronan was an Employee and I doubt if he will be able to do that especially if Fr Ronan was paid by the Diocese and/or his Order

More significantly the 9th Circuit decided that the American Diocese and the Order were not “agents or instrumentalities” of the Holy See and therefore the Holy See is not vicariously liable for any actions of the Diocese or their employees. That I think is the real core decision in this case and I suspect the lawyers for the Holy See are happy about it because it clearly distinguishes between the status of the Holy See as an Internationally recognised state under International Law and the status of the Diocese etc of the Catholic Church as nationally recognised Religious Organisations under US law. The Court noted for example that the Holy See can only be sued in the US Federal Courts under the defined terms of the “Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act” whilst Catholic Diocese etc can be sued in both State and Federal Courts under ordinary Tort liability, conversely American Catholic Diocese etc enjoy the protection of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution whilst the Holy See does not.

In Summary therefore the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (NOT the United States Supreme Court) has decided

  • The Holy See is a Sovereign State under US Law
  • The Holy See can only be sued in the US on the same basis as any Sovereign State and enjoys exactly the same immunity from suit as any other Sovereign State
  • Catholic Diocese and Organisations in the US are not “Agents or Instrumentalities” of the Holy See and the Holy See cannot be held liable for their actions
  • The Holy See can only be sued with respect to the Acts of its “employees” and not for the acts of Catholic Priests etc generally
Finally on the issue of the Supreme Court refusing to review the 9th Circuits decision (refusing 'cert' ) this is not unusual in the circumstances of this case where as yet there has been no trial and no findings of fact. No Appellate Court likes to deal with cases, such as this, where there have no been any findings of fact and where the decision of the 9th Circuit is not (so far as I can see) in conflict with any decision by any other Circuit. Refusing cert in these circumstances does not mean that the Supreme Court necessarily agrees or disagrees with the 9th Circuit merely that the case has not yet reached a stage which is appropriate for adjudication by the Supreme Court.

PS For my American Legal Readers (if any). If I have misunderstood or misrepresented American Law or procedure please let me know and I will correct the Blog. As an aside I do find the fact that American court Judgments contain “footnotes” very peculiar and unique to US Judgments. Yes I know I'm a Limey and you have just celebrated 4th July but honestly lads it does look weird !