No immunity from secular law

— Synodal reflection

In recent years the official position on clerical immunity has changed, but do we show it in action?

“If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18,6)

We are all aware of the child abuse scandal in the Church. Under instructions from Rome, priests who had been involved in child abuse were not referred to secular criminal authorities.

I myself came across such a case. After I had spoken to a group of Catholic women campaigning for the ordination of women, one person, whom I shall call Dawn, approached me. We became good friends. We stayed in touch. On one occasion she told me her experience as a child.

“I’m an orphan”, she said. “My father divorced my mother and went abroad. My mother died when I was twelve years old. I landed up in an orphanage managed by religious sisters. The sisters treated me well. I’m greatly indebted to them. But our spiritual director inflicted permanent damage.”

“What did he do?,” I asked.

“Well, he came to the orphanage once a week to hear our confessions. Remember this was the 1970’s. If we needed to discuss any special problem, we could meet him in a small parlor nearby. Well, on one occasion he told me at the end of confession to meet him in in the parlor afterward.”

“I don’t know if I should go into details”, she told me. “But I suppose it is a relief for me to share my story. On that day I waited till all confessions were over. Then I joined him in the parlor. He locked the door from the inside keeping the key in the door, sat down and asked me to come closer. ‘I want to see if you are healthy and OK’, he said. Then he lifted my skirt, pulled down my panties and interfered with me . . . I froze. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. But he said everything was alright. I didn’t need to worry … This happened a couple of times. On the last occasion, he tried to rape me. I cried, managed to open the door and ran out of the room.”

“Didn’t you tell anyone?”, I asked.

“Yes, I finally did. When Mother Superior found me sobbing in the dormitory, she took me to her office. I told her what had happened. She was upset. She embraced me and said: ‘I’ll sort this out’. She did, in quite a dramatic way. I was sent to another orphanage far away from the priest.”

“And what happened to him?”

“Nothing as far as I know. Years later when I had grown up and got my first job, I visited the original orphanage. I was told the priest was still the spiritual director. I don’t know if he molested other girls …”

Dawn also confided to me that, on account of that early experience and her resulting dread of men, she had never been able to marry.


The horror of child abuse committed by some bishops and priests is now well recognized. The Catholic Church handled the crisis badly, especially under Pope John Paul II. The reasons were a serious underestimation of the emotional damage done to the victims; the failure to understand that child abuse springs from deep psychological disorders that lead to re-offending; and the belief that avoiding scandal to the Church’s reputation should outweigh other considerations.

But another, more destructive, reason lay in the old concept that clerics were exempt from secular law. It was laid down in the earliest medieval form of it in these words: “The drawing of a cleric before a civil judge is prohibited by the sacred canons and the external (secular) laws, both in civil and in criminal cases” (12th century. Decree of Gratian, ch. 32, no 24). It remained enshrined in Church Law until 1983.

And the principle of clerical exemption is closely linked to another erroneous concept: that ordained persons are somehow only accountable to their ecclesiastical superiors and to God.

Christ and exemption from secular law

It is clear that Jesus would be very upset by child abuse. He clearly stated: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18,6).

Notice the phrase: “If any of you”. There is no room here for clerical immunity. It includes ‘apostles’ or whoever would claim a rank among his disciples.

But what about exemption from secular law?

Well, Jesus taught that the Jews of his time should pay taxes to their secular rulers, the Romans. Remember the incident. When the Pharisees and Herodians ask him about this, he said: “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And when they brought him a denarius, he asked: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Then Jesus declared: “Well, then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22,19-21). This is all the more telling because the Romans were foreign intruders.

Another telling feature is that, when Jesus cured lepers, he always instructed them to subject themselves to the priests in Jerusalem who were in charge of checking whether someone was infected by leprosy or not.

Keeping lepers isolated was crucially important in Jewish society at the time to prevent further infections. Those specialized priests were the officially appointed authority.

To a leper in the Galilean hill country Jesus gives this order: “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8,4).

To the ten lepers on the border between Samaria and Galilee Jesus says: “Go and show yourself to the priests!” (Luke 17,14). Jesus did not consider them immune from the established law.

When Jesus stands trial before Pilate, he does not claim immunity from secular law.

Pilate asks him: “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replies: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is from another place [is a different kind of kingdom]” (John 18,33-36).

Even though Jesus knew he was unjustly condemned to death, he did not deny Pilate’s secular authority over himself.


In recent years the official position on clerical immunity has changed, but do we show it in action? If bishops or priests harm another person, are we on the side of the cleric or of the victim?

Do we cooperate fully with secular authorities investigating misbehavior or crimes committed by ordained persons?

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