Australia allows the Catholic Church to protect sexual predators, and any information the church holds on its own illegal activity, from the law. We let it do this by granting protections afforded to no other religious group. It is time this ended.
In 1973 the Australian government granted the Vatican (called the Holy See in official channels) formal diplomatic recognition. This protected the Vatican, and gave its senior officials and head office in Australia the same protection we afford embassies and staff of foreign nations. Their documents cannot be subpoenaed and their senior officials cannot be forced to attend court or provide information.
By accepting the Vatican has foreign nation status, we also accept that it can refuse any Australian request or demand to hand over alleged criminals to stand trial in Australia. The only way criminals in a foreign country can be forced to stand trial in Australia is if we have an extradition treaty with that country.
Australia has an extradition treaty with Italy, but hasn’t managed in 44 years to get one in place with the tiny pretend nation-state of the Vatican that exists wholly within Rome. This is why George Pell can’t be forced back to face questioning at the Royal Commission and why, if a senior Vatican official in Rome was accused of child abuse, he could not be forced to face a criminal trial in our country.
Imagine if Australia decided to grant Sunni Islam, or Scientology or the Anglican Church the same level of immunity as the Catholic Church. There would quite rightly be an uproar. The Catholic Church’s protection is a historical artefact that should have been addressed decades ago.
The personal diplomatic protection does not apply to every priest or church official in Australia, only the most senior. It applies to the Vatican’s ambassador in Australia (known as the Apostolic Nuncio) and to “diplomatic staff”. It also protects all documents and information held by the embassy and all communications with the Vatican.
In 2014 the Vatican denied a Royal Commission request for documents, saying it was “neither possible nor appropriate” to provide them.
So let’s be clear. The Vatican is hiding behind the protection the Australia government has given to it, to avoid providing information it holds on systemic and repeated instances of child sexual abuse.
If the Vatican didn’t have diplomatic protection, the Royal Commission could have simply subpoenaed the Vatican’s head office in Australia and demanded the Apostolic Nuncio hand over every email, file and other relevant document it held.
If the church didn’t comply the Australian Federal Police would have the power to enter the premises. Instead we are meant to be satisfied with a polite request being stubbornly refused.
Diplomatic immunity has a place in the international order in promoting good relations between sovereign nation states. It should have no place protecting one religious body from the law of the land.
If an organisation can’t get caught, if its senior officials are immune from prosecution, then it will be far less likely to undertake the essential reforms needed to ensure child safety and public accountability.
It’s time the Catholic Church was forced to enter the 21st Century. This starts by Australian governments renouncing the special protections and diplomatic immunities afforded the Church and, making it equal before the law. Equal, at last, with its victims.