Geoffrey Robertson's Catholicism for dummies


Catholicism for Dummies coverGeoffrey Robertson may be a celebrity QC, but historian he is certainly not.

In his book The Case of the Pope and recently at Sydney's Festival of Dangerous Ideas, he touts the notion that the Vatican is not a real state and that as a consequence Benedict XVI should not be granted immunity from prosecution. Therefore he can be put on trial for his alleged responsibility in covering up clerical sexual abuse. 

While to insiders it is obvious Robertson doesn't understand how the Church works (he even cites Catholicism for Dummies as one of his reference sources), I completely concede that Catholicism has a massive problem with sexual abuse and its cover-up.

Some Catholics, of course, have been saying exactly that for years. We know Catholicism faces a massive institutional problem, exacerbated by clericalism, and needs a radically new approach to Church government. But this will be achieved by committed Catholics, not articulate QCs. 

In fact Robertson's boots and all approach diverts attention from the real issues. He focuses on what he calls the 'pernicious doctrine' of sovereignty, that is the legal inhibition that prevents states from interfering in the internal affairs of other states. 

But first, let's get a bit of history straight. The Holy See is the oldest state in Europe. The popes first administered Rome during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Then in the 680s several able popes were obliged to take political leadership in the protection of central Italy. This led to an independence movement that resulted in the formation of the respublica Sancti Petri, the forerunner of the Papal States. This was later recognised by Pepin the Short, Charlemagne's father.

The Papal States survived as a geographical and legal entity until 1870 when Rome was absorbed into the Kingdom of Italy. The popes never surrendered their territorial claim and in the three Lateran Treaties, a series of agreements between Mussolini's Italy and the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Casparri, the Holy See was recognised as a sovereign entity with a tiny territory, the Vatican City State.

Australia recognises the sovereignty of the Holy See. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in its 'Holy See Country Brief' correctly defines the Holy See as 'the central government of the Catholic Church'. It says that 'The Vatican City State was established … [to provide] the Holy See with a small territorial base and consequent recognition as an independent sovereign entity in international law.'

The DFAT Brief says that the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 176 countries (Australia has relations with 127) and that all Vatican territory is protected as a world cultural heritage site.

Essentially Robertson's attack on the papacy emanates from his preoccupation with limiting state sovereignty so that his particular notion of human rights can be enforced worldwide, and tyrants like Saddam Hussein (Robertson supported the bombing of Iraq) can be brought before the courts.

He sees himself as engaging in a kind of 'tyranicide' who ranges across the world overthrowing 'evildoers' and bringing them to justice, like his Puritan hero John Cooke who prosecuted King Charles I in 1649 leading to the monarch's execution. Perhaps, like the regicide Cooke, Robertson sees himself as a kind of 'papacide'?

His ignorance of how the church works is revealed in his attack on Benedict XVI. He says that widespread sexual abuse happened 'because Joseph Ratzinger, both as head of the CDF and as Pope, has insisted for the past 30 years that all such cases be dealt with in secrecy under canon law' — a legal system Robertson derides — instead of reporting abusers to the local police. 

The facts are, as New Zealand canonist Brendan Daly showed last year in the periodical Compass, bishops found that using the 1983 Code of Canon Law was inadequate to deal with the abuse scenario they faced. They decided 'that using the canonical law and process was too complicated and difficult, and so they simply made no attempt to use the provisions of penal law that existed'.

While theoretically sexual abuse had fallen within the competence of Holy Office since 1962, bishops ignored that provision. It was not until 2001 that Ratzinger's CDF was given full supervision over complaints of sexual abuse. So if anyone is to blame it is local bishops.

Once he understood the extent of the problem Ratzinger as Pope moved quickly. An example is the Mexican priest-psychopath, Marcial Maciel. In 2003 I was told by an official of the CDF that they believed a case had been made against Maciel. But he had strong support in the Vatican and was a friend of John Paul II, so the CDF was hamstrung.

As soon as he became Pope, Benedict XVI moved to deal with this serial abuser. Yes, he should have been handed over to the police, but apparently none were actually after him.

It seems to me that Robertson QC is more interested in his own sovereignty agenda than the actual pursuit of justice for victims.

Paul CollinsAuthor and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor — religion for the ABC.

Topic tags: Paul Collins, Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, clerical sexual abuse, Geoffrey Robinson QC



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Existing comments

Fancy looking at Vatican history from 2 points of view! But Paul is not really persuasive enough to convince me that "committed Catholics" will (ever!) change the Church from within. Children's abuse have been going on for God knows how long, and we are still waiting! As for the non-existent Vaticanians, I must do my own reading on its history. I'm not expecting anything good coming out of it!
Nathalie | 11 October 2010

It seems that Robertson has once again proved to be an entertaining, and thought provoking, jester. Collins too seems to have a similar ambition. However, is it possible that a main point here is that we need more public discussion to help bring the chaos that is the administration and management of the ‘Big C’ church into some acceptable form of rational governance?
Dermott Ryder | 11 October 2010

Geoffrey Robertson QC illustrates what can happen when a brilliant barrister who has learned to use every trick available to him in the British (Australian) system of justice in arguimg (presenting?) the case for or against an accused will not let facts get in the way of his tactics.

The object is not that the truth be revealed but rather that the conviction or the dismissal of the accused be achieved. When this forensic skill is corrupted by the pursuit of celebrity and the zeal of the iconoclast then it is not surprising that the travesty - The Case of the Pope - results.

I doubt if Mr Robertson will be diverted from his preoccupation with tyranicide (secular or ecclesial) no matter how cogent Paul Collins' historical analysis of the genesis of The Holy See. Am I right in saying it is the only sovereign state recognised by the United Nations that is not a nation state?

There are many catholics, both clerical and lay, who have a better knowledge of the bad, even wicked, things, the hierarchy of the church is responsible for.

They use different tactics from Geoffrey Robertson's in trying to rectify them.
Uncle Pat | 11 October 2010

I deplore the Church's handling of the sexual abuse scandal everywhere it has occurred and as a practising Catholic I remain unconvinced that even Pope Benedict has fully grasped the reaction to it among all people including Catholics. I also accept Paul's outline of historical validity for the Vatican as a state. However, the bigger issue for me is why the Church central governance should have the status of a state at all to give it political clout or immunity, or for any other purpose. I simply cannot see such an arrangement, with all its trappings, as compatible with the lifestyle and values that Christ called us to.
Dennis Green | 11 October 2010

Oh Dear, This sounds a little to much like Catholics defending the un-defensible - again. Paul writes:

"As soon as he became Pope, Benedict XVI moved to deal with this serial abuser. Yes, he should have been handed over to the police, but apparently none were actually after him"

Is a simple telephone call to the local constabulary out of the question?

I'll believe that the Catholic Church is committed to change when I see the Church handing over abusers to the judicial system. Priests are human and should not be exempted or protected from the law - ever!
Barbara | 11 October 2010

Paul Collins clearly demonstrates that Geoffrey Robertson's opinion in denying that the Vatican is a state is absurd. I ventured an opinion along these lines some time ago:

From The Sydney Morning Herald “Holding Pope responsible for abuses is not too dangerous”, September 29. It would seem that Geoffrey Robertson would accept that the Pope is immune from prosecution if he is indeed a head of state. To deny his state headship is, I think, about as logical as saying he is not a Catholic. Ex officio the Pope is the head of state and government of the Vatican City. However, big or small the territory of the Vatican City is, I would not think, this should legally determine whether it is a state or not. Also there are people with Vatican citizenship, perhaps not many, but they do recognise the Pope as their head of state. In the overall historical picture of the Pope’s claim to be a head of state, while focusing only on the Lateran Pacts of 1929 which created the Vatican City, it is well to remember that the Holy See has been recognised since late antiquity as a sovereign entity with the Pope as its head. The Pope as a head of state or not, I suspect, is just a red herring on Geoffrey’s part disguising a good red-blooded anti-Catholicism. Would he be as eager to question the bona fides of the Queen of England for the way sexual abuse has been handled in Anglican institutions?
David Wall | 11 October 2010

Re the concern that church authorities use canon law to impede due civil process for perpetrators of sexual abuse - what about the facts that many priests and religious brothers in the western world, and certainly in Australia, have been jailed for such offences and that some dioceses and religious orders have made huge compensatory payments to individuals who have been abused?
Caroline Ryan | 11 October 2010

The Holy See may be the oldest state in Europe, as Paul Collins argues, but is that any reason for the Vatican City State to be given privileges that other major world religions and Christian denominations are not? It doesn't appear to be using this extra global power for good. Why can the World Council of Churches, for example, not sign a treaty with Switzerland, claim a bit of Geneva, and similarly use the privileges of statehood. At least the WCC wouldn't oppose birth control and the use of condoms!
Avril | 11 October 2010

Paul. Thanks for your informative response to Robertson's book.
Kevin Mark | 11 October 2010

The Holy See needs a little bit of territory to call its own - ie., a state - so that it can carry out its mission free from political interference. This is the reason Pope Pius IX defended the Papal State so strenuously before its conquest by the Piedomontese aggressors in the 19th century. With hindsight we can say that it was a bit much for the Pope to rule civilly over a substantial chunk of Italy but it is the principle of independence that is important and that principle was recognised by the Lateran accords of 1929. Pius IX was right.

The issue of size of territory is irrelevant to the issue of what constitutes a state. The Principality of Monaco is another pocket handerkerchief-sized state. The Republic of San Marino and the Principality of Liechtenstein are not much bigger. They are, nevertheless, real states. Nation states are not the only kind of state.

The Vatican does need to be wary of how it presents the trappings of statehood. Vatican motor car registration plates have on them SCV = "Stato della Citta' del Vaticano". Roman wits say that the letters really stand for "Se Cristo Videsse" = If Christ could see this! However, the trappings of the Vatican State have been very much pruned back after Vatican II. But some services and symbols of statehood are essential - security, postal system, flag, etc. Personally, I would like to see the return of the tiara.

The territorial independence of the papacy is not a privilege. It is a right, based on the 1000 year-old history of the Papal State, making it the oldest state in Europe. This right was recognised under international law by the Lateran Treaty in return for the Pope surrendering his claim to sovereignty over the pre-1870 lands. Were the Lateran Treaty ever to be revoked against the wishes of the Holy See, that sovereignty would immediately revive.

There is absolutely no reason at all why the WCC could not come to an agreement with Switzerland for token territorial sovereignty along the lines of the Vatican City State. All that would be required would be the consent of the Swiss government and people. The same observation would apply to the Phanar, the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey, or to any central religious authority that Muslims might care to set up in the future.

A footnote: The Church is not opposed to birth control. It is in favour of family planning. It is opposed to immoral methods of birth control such as contraception (whether mechanical or chemical) and abortion.
Sylvester | 11 October 2010

If the author of this article was up to date he would know, The pope has made no effort to sort out the abuse scandal, In fact hes made it worse for survivors by keeping in place people like brady from Ireland, If others can be bought before the international court there is no reason that the pope cannot be
Michael McManus | 11 October 2010

Although Robertson may be slightly incorrect in his understanding of how the Church works, as you assert, it's high time the Catholic Church was held legally accountable for all the horrific crimes committed by some of its priests, and - where proven - for protecting the perpetrators of such crimes.

The Catholic (or any other) Church should not be outside the laws of the land. Robertson should be congratulated for pursuing his case.
Brian Jones | 11 October 2010

Good article Paul Collins and for once not washing dirty linen in public.Robertson's performance was pretty outrageous. He is a typically big ego barrister, and of course, like his mate Dawkins an Alpha White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Male used to being heard and expecting people to defer to his opinions...what do you expect? Perhaps some of your commentators, sadly including some Catholics, are not really interested in the historical detail which Paul Collins has supplied, succinctly and correctly (I speak from the same discipline) and are only interested in venting their own anger and frustration. Totally understandable given the cover-ups, particularly in Ireland. But like the Bishop who excommunicated Mary McKillop, these weak, compromised male church leaders who were guilty of cover-ups, will be severely judged by history.
By the way, applying Robertson's ridiculous argument, as the Queen of England is the 'Head' of the C of E, then when Anglican clergy are guilty of abuse, and Anglican bishops guilty of cover-up, perhaps brave, crusading Mr. Robertson and his chums will stand up and demand the Queen be put on trial..somehow I don't think that will happen!!
He knows which side his bread is buttered on!
Ann | 11 October 2010

There was a call om the 7 th August 2010 for the queen to be prosecuted, And this was by survivors of abuse in london, Instead of attacking Robertson the author of this article might like to answer this question, Why is it ok to teach children if your a member of the hierarchy of the church and you cover up child rape and abuse, You can keep your job
Michael McManus | 11 October 2010

Sexual abuse in the RCC has gone since its splitting from the first Christian church in the 300"s the clergy has been able to cover up thier deeds since then up to the 1900's becausae they used the fear of eternal damnation of the victims if they tried to bring this out in the open. For centuries the only people who had any education were mostly clerics and royalty
and nobles. women were not allowed an education. Also communications were basic either by letter or in person ,if you couldn't read you were out of luck.

In the last 150 years communications have advanced to the point of being just a phone call or keyboard away. Meaning the victims of these crimes can talk to each other and to all others. People are finding out even if some would rather remain ignorant, that these and other crimes have happened and unfortunately still happen to this very day
J. Paul Kezior | 11 October 2010

Funny - maybe not the best choice of words - how whatever issue about the Catholic Church is posted on the internet, the ensuing 'discussion' always ends up in hysterical, hate-filled Dawkinsian ranting against the Pope, the clergy and the Church.

Some facts:

(1) In North America, possibly the worst-affected part of the world in terms of clerical child abuse, about 1% of the Catholic clergy have been accused - not convicted - but accused of crimes against children. Doubtless, this figure is to be corrected by those clergy who have offended but have not been accused. Feeding in this factor probably balances out to about 1%. In other words, 99% of the Catholic clergy - whatever else they might do - do not carry out this kind of crime.

(2) Sociological surveys show that, of the various 'caring professions' - teachers, social workers, sporting coaches, doctors, police, scout leaders, psychologists, counsellors, etc., etc., etc., - the Catholic clergy are one of the groups least likely to offend.

(3) Insurance statistics suggest that the Protestant clergy (who are able to be married and often are) are more likely to offend in this way than the (celibate) Catholic clergy.

(4) Most sexual abuse of children takes place in domestic contexts, usually perpetrated by serial de facto partners or live-in boyfriends who are not the fathers, and therefore, have not bonded with the victimised children. Where is the public demand that something be done about this situation?

(5) In North America, at least 60% of child sex abuse committed by the Catholic clergy has not been 'pedophilia' (pre-pubescent children), which is rare, but 'ephebephilia' (adolescent boys). The sex abuse crisis has a marked homosexual tone to it quite out of proportion to the incidence of homosexuality in society and among the Catholic clergy. To say this is not to blame homosexual men in general but to take note of a salient sociological fact of which the Church must take cognizance as it goes about putting in place procedures and protocols to stop this kind of behaviour.

(6) The Catholic Church was the first institution to develop policies to address the problem of child sex abuse and is the world leader in the field.

Let us have a little perspective, please.
Sylvester | 11 October 2010

I'm no historian but I have read Robertson's book - and there is just far too much in it which shows the church wanting. I feel no relief belonging to a church which claims immunity due to 'statehood' and/or argues that canon law over-rides criminal law. In fact I feel absolute shame. That those who claim to be God's most authoritative representatives on earth should have to resort to such legalese I find appalling.

Collins makes no mention of the fact that the Bishops of England and Wales explicitly ASKED for permission to set aside canon law and to place into its procedures mandatory reporting of offenders to police. It was denied. Neither does he respond to the Vatican's repeated failure to submit a report under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which it is a signatory.
We must be very, very careful. If this was another religion we would not tolerate claims that it had the right to operate outside international law...particularly when it comes to human rights.

Until the Church acts in accordance with the moral law it teaches I must conclude that its primary motive in all this is self preservation.
Margaret Carswell | 12 October 2010

Paul seems to skim over the lack of action by John Paul II, who had cowed the bishops who wanted action and appointed yes men who wouldn't rock the boat and it appears at this time that Benedict XVI is still appointing yes men. Secrecy, structural inertia and conformity at all costs seems to infect our church. Too bad the openness of Vatican II was closed down so quickly by such frightened men.
Jim Erskine | 12 October 2010

We all know that in the past the handling of the sex abuse scandal by the Catholic church has been inadequate, if not woefully inept. But since Benedict XVI took control of the issue in 2001, serious steps have been put in place to address it, and on the face of it, these appear to be working. Why can't we just let them get on with the job.

The catholic church is neither the only nor the first institution to get this wrong, but at least it has come out with humility, accepted its failings and is addressing the problem.
Pat Pomphrett | 12 October 2010

Robertson knows that attacking a religion will create publicity and that world wide publicity means a few more millions for him. He know that it is far safer to attack the Catholic Church than risking his life attacking other religions.
Beat Odermatt | 15 October 2010

Sorry, Mr. Collins, this is a polemic and not a Christian response to anything. We don't need more law, international or otherwise. We need and ethic of care. You want to mount the arguument, "so, if anyone is to blame it is the local bishops"? Please, a little reality therapy. Local bishops do what Rome tells them and you and I and the rest of the Catholic church knows it. And then you suggest that Ratzinger moved on Maciel as soon as he could? What about Austria, his stoutest defender? Did he stand by him instead of with Sodano? When it was Sudano who received huge amounts of money from Maciel. That little case stinks, as they say, to high Heaven.

And sovereign state? Do they really want to be? Or do they refuse the UN so they can just sit on the sidelines and take pot shots when it suits and claim soverignity when it suits? Or do they really want to be stange bedfellows with the radical Muslim world at Cairo to refuse birth control to all their women?

It is the gospel we need not more public international law.
Gail Grossman Freyne | 15 October 2010

I read "We know Catholicism faces a massive institutional problem, exacerbated by clericalism, and needs a radically new approach to Church government" and felt considerable hope. But then Collins went on, "But this will be achieved by committed Catholics, not articulate QCs" and my heart sank.

Paul, you share the Catholic culture of secrecy and exclusion. It's the attitude of "The inner group will fix this; outsiders should be kept in the dark" all over again. And your statement, "Yes, he should have been handed over to the police, but apparently none were actually after him" is the weakest possible cop-out.
Anna Summerfield | 15 October 2010

Excellent piece Paul Collins. Geoffrey Robertson irritates me big time. A few years ago he tried, through the UK broadsheet Guardian to have the Queen removed because she was not elected by the people, so UK was not a democracy. What's with this Robertson bloke?
Lynne Redknap | 15 October 2010

I suspect that if it ever ended up in any court, Geoffrey would have no trouble proving the Vatican is not a state. He would still lose as no judge would ever have the groonies to make such a decision. The ramifications would be enormous.
Trevor | 16 October 2010

paul collins has a better grasp of international law than geoffery robertson ? give us a break
keith foster | 24 October 2010

It interests me that 50 years after the Ecumenical Council people still write of the Church as being its clergy. The vast majority in the Catholic Church are lay. According to Government statistics child sexual abuse occurs in Australia at the rate of one in seven girls and one is twelve boys. I presume the rate is similar among lay Catholics. Sexual abuse of anyone, anywhere, but particularly children is horrific and to be condemned, and punished. Its occurs among clergy 'per capita' at a rate much lower than it does in our society at large. Yet the Media has concentrated almost exclusively on the crime committed by Catholic Clergy.

Would some lay Catholic, please explain the massive cover up of the offence in families, perhaps their own? I am not trying to divert attention. But hasn't there been enough concentration on this one the small group, as if the crime was exclusively theirs? Is there some other agenda now involved? Isn't it time for a serious study on why this sexual deviation (pathology) occurs - why priests, ministers, coaches, teachers molest little children; and fathers, older brothers, family friends, and it would seem wives and aunts etc. rape and molest young members of their own families - and then cover it up?

My plea is to widen the rage to include everyone who commits the crime. But no one seems the least interested.
Fr Ronan Kilgannon | 08 November 2010


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