BY Peter Diamond | September 7 2018 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Leading Scottish canon lawyer calls for more accountability in the Church

Former Vatican diplomat says more resources needed after US abuse revelations

The Church needs more resources and accountability to deal swiftly and fairly with cases of abuse, one of Scotland’s leading canon lawyers has said.

Former papal diplomat Mgr Peter Magee stated this week that the Church has to invest in more canon lawyers who are not necessarily clerics, devolve some cases back to local tribunals, and ‘must certainly’ apply justice ‘blindly’ to bishops and cardinals as well as priests and laity.

Mgr Magee, parish priest of St Mary’s Church in Largs and of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Millport, was speaking in answer to questions from the SCO following revelations out of the United States.

Former US cardinal and Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick stands accused of abusing minors and adult seminarians and Pope Francis has subsequently instructed the 88-year-old to a life of fasting and penance.

Questions have been raised as to how the former cardinal was able to rise to such prominence in the Church despite the accusations.

This was followed two weeks later by a landmark Grand Jury investigation in Pennsylvania into historic abuse which found more than 1,000 children had been abused over a 70-year period.

While the Church now refers all abuse accusations to the police in the first instance, there have been widespread calls for reform of the Church’s internal procedures for the handling of allegations following the McCarrick case.



Mgr Magee was a Vatican diplomat for 16 years and has most recently been the Judicial Vicar of the Bishops of Scotland and Officialis of the Scottish Catholic Interdiocesan Tribunal from April 2009 to March 2018.

He said more resources are needed and more cases could be usefully devolved from Rome ‘back to local tribunals, especially those cases which are more clear-cut in view of the evidence.’

“What is lacking in the main are sufficient human and financial resources,” he said.

“We need more canon lawyers, who don’t have to be clerics or, if they are clerics, who are not trying to hold down several parishes and other responsibilities as well as canonical ones.

“At the level of the Holy See, I sense that, quantitatively, the machinery in place to handle the sadly hundreds of cases of this kind reserved to it may not actually be in place to process them as soon as they come in, leading to delays.”

He added: “Action is what is certainly needed: swift, efficient, effective action. But it must also be action which is first rooted in careful investigation and discovery of the truth.

“Accusations must be proven and both public criminal justice and canonical justice possess tried and tested criteria for determining what is proof or what, on the contrary, is merely perception, conspiracy or even imagination.

“The law and the procedures themselves cannot be blamed for causing obstacles in this matter.

“Law and procedures are merely tools, and very important tools which protect basic human rights.”

In March 2018 the Church in Scotland published its latest safeguarding document In God’s Image. Mgr Magee said the document ‘makes it very plain that the Church in Scotland is fully cooperative and compliant with the public authorities as required by the law of the state.’

“It should also be said that if a sexual abuse case first comes to light through Church channels, it is referred immediately to those authorities,” he said.

Mgr Magee who was made a Prelate of Honour of His Holiness by St Pope John Paul II in May 2001 has stated that he believes bishops and cardinals should be held accountable for covering up or failing to report any crime.

“The application of the law has to apply across the board, irrespective of status or prestige. Justice is blind; objectivity is paramount; strict application of the norms and procedures is essential.

“If the laity are held accountable, if the religious and priests are held accountable, so must bishops and cardinals be held accountable whether it be for a crime of sexual abuse or for failing to report it or for covering it up,” he said.

“It is here that we look to Pope Francis for further leadership and effective action.

“The Church’s performance in the West, has made some very gradual progress in more recent years in the canonical processing of abuse cases perpetrated by priests and religious.

“But it is pitiful and shameful that this happened largely, if not exclusively, due to the duress and scrutiny of the media, the police and public opinion.

“It seems all too evident that much more still needs to be done to ensure that justice is dispensed more swiftly and more convincingly in punishing those found guilty by due Church process, and in offering full redress to victims and survivors.”

He added: “Even if we put in place all the resources required and perfect our canonical procedures further, it will make little difference if the effective will to prosecute cases is lacking.

“It is this that we need in the Church, from the top down. Hopefully we are seeing more movement in that direction now. It is something we must urge, petition and pray for.”

Last week, at the end of the World Meeting of Families (WMOF), Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accused Pope Francis of being aware of the McCarrick allegations. The archbishop, who has previously clashed with Pope Francis over his role as Apostolic Nuncio to the US, called on the Holy Father to resign.

Bishop Joseph Toal, who supervises safeguarding for the Church in Scotland and was at the WMOF, told the SCO: “With last week’s statement from [Archbishop Viganò] regarding an accusation of cover-ups it’s hard to know what is going on. It’s a huge issue that needs to be tackled and it appears to be going deeper into the Vatican.

“In Ireland last week there were calls for the Vatican to open up files relating to historical abuse and perhaps that is now a legitimate question.”

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