The Vatican’s Medieval AttitudeThe Catholic Church’s attitude toward clerical child abuse is over a thousand years old. The most recent cosmetic changes to the Vatican’s legal code—priests and bishops are still not required to report abuse to civil authorities—indicate that the Church recognizes the need to appear responsive to recent allegations, but remains fundamentally committed to ideas about religious authority that have been in place for the past millennium. This is only the most recent clash between Church and lay authority over the past nine centuries.
The Vatican’s practice of handling clerical crime from within the Church has been scrutinized and questioned before. This struggle between secular and religious power came to a spectacular head between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the second half of the twelfth century. After inheriting a kingdom ruptured by decades of civil war, Henry worked to solidify his power, in part by implementing a strong royal judicial system, the basis of our own legal system. To consolidate his power and strengthen his reforms, Henry sought to impose one set of laws for all of his subjects, whether clergy or laity.
One of the central issues, much like today, was the prosecution priests who committed violent crimes but escaped royal justice to be tried by the more lenient church courts. Anyone in holy orders accused of a crime, even one as serious as murder or arson, could claim the benefit of the clergy—the right to be tried by a bishop—and this right extended to those who entered holy orders after committing a crime. In one instance, a cleric, Philip de Brois, was accused (justly, it seems) of murdering a knight and harming the king’s justice, was tried by his bishop, and was acquitted of homicide and fined. In other cases, just as in recent decades, guilty priests were moved to different parishes or dioceses.
Henry was displeased with these evasions of royal justice and, by extension, royal authority. In 1164, he set out sixteen constitutions—legislative articles—aimed at limiting ecclesiastical jurisdiction and, ultimately, the power of the Catholic Church within his realm. Becket, previously Henry’s chancellor and ally, strenuously objected to the constitutions and, as the senior primate in England, refused to ratify them. Becket rejected the idea that the Crown should have civil jurisdiction over priests, since spiritual power outranks secular power, and priests have a sacred role. As such, all in holy orders had clerical privilege to be tried in ecclesiastical courts and according to canon law. Becket further asserted the primacy of religious justice, arguing that the Crown could not prosecute priest who had been defrocked, as it would force him to be tried twice for the same offense.
Becket’s stance enraged Henry, who forced Becket to flee to France. In 1170, under threat of excommunication, Henry agreed to allow Becket back into England, though the constitutions remained unresolved. Just a few months after his return, four knights murdered Becket in Christ Church Cathedral. The monks at Canterbury and local pilgrims began to venerate Becket as a martyr almost immediately, and accounts of miracles at his shrine spread rapidly. Because the murderers claimed to have been acting to satisfy Henry’s frustration with his stubborn archbishop, Henry was tainted with indirect responsibility for Becket’s murder, weakening his authority in parts of his kingdom and his position with the Church. Becket was canonized in 1173. Henry was forced to do public penance at his tomb in 1174.
Becket’s martyrdom shadowed Henry’s reign for the next twenty years. Henry was compelled to revoke the two most contentious constitutions, and the parallel ecclesiastical judicial system continued largely as before. Beginning with the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, states with strong civil authority have been able to mandate that certain clerical crimes—such as murder—be tried in civil, rather than religious, court. But sexual abuse, including child rape, remains a crime that is most often handled by the Church, instead of secular authority.