Bishops entitled to conceal abuse by clergy, says canon law expert


Catholic bishops are entitled to set aside the criminal law and conceal a paedophile cleric's misdeeds from the authorities - even at the risk of going to prison, according to an expert on the church's internal rules.

Explicitly rejecting an assertion by the Minister for Justice that civil law must always be given precedence over canon law, Monsignor Maurice Dooley, a former professor at St Patrick's College, Thurles, said the Catholic hierarchy's first loyalty was to the church.

Bishops were not required to report past cases of sexual abuse - indeed, if they had been told of such crimes in confidence, they might be obliged actively to shelter the offending priest, regardless of the consequences.

Church files were equally sacrosanct - the hierarchy was prohibited from handing over internal documents to the authorities if there was a danger that its duty to protect confidentiality might be compromised.

Cardinal Desmond Connell, accused this week of hampering a Garda investigation into clerical abuse, was keenly aware that he was answerable to the church ahead of the state, Monsignor Dooley said.

He added: "As far as the church is concerned, its laws comes first. A bishop swears allegiance to canon law. If there was a real conflict he would simply have to maintain canon law, even if there was a chance of going to jail."

A bishop's relationship with a priest was analogous to that between parent and child, Monsignor Dooley said.

"As a parent, you are entitled to protect your child or even to conceal him from punishment. A bishop's first obligation is to make sure that the abuse does not continue. Past offences and the danger of future offences are two different things. He does not have an obligation to see to it that his erring priest is punished in civil law. He is a kind of father figure towards his priest."

If children were at immediate risk from a paedophile priest, then a senior cleric was obliged by canon law to go to the authorities.