Time for the Catholic Church to Open its Secret Archives

17/01/2012 22:48 GMT | Updated 18/03/2012 09:12 GMT

Before the child abuse scandal of the last decade, Catholic priests held influential and highly respected roles within the community. They enjoyed the trust of the public and unquestioned access to children. We know that created extensive opportunities for sexual abuse.

What we don't know is the true scale of that abuse. Child abuse is accompanied by fear and shame, and most victims never come forward. Only around 10% of sexual abuse allegations result in criminal convictions. And there's a further reason, which is that for many decades the Catholic Church persistently ignored and in many cases covered up complaints of abuse. As a lawyer acting for victims, I've seen evidence of cover ups on many of my cases - victims warned against taking their complaints to the police, priests transferred away from parishes suddenly until complaints die down.

The Catholic church now maintains that it abhors child abuse and that it wants to root it out. If the Catholic church is serious about this - and I've no doubt that there are at least some in the church hierarchy who are determined to confront the problem - then in my view it has a responsibility to come clean about past abuse. And there's a simple way for the Catholic church to do this - open its secret archives to the police.

"Secret archives" sounds like something from a Dan Brown novel. But this isn't the Da Vinci Code we're talking about, it's the Code of Canon Law. Canon Law is the legal system of the Catholic church. Canon 489 is very clear that every diocese of the Catholic church must maintain:

"...a secret archive, or at least in the ordinary archive there is to be a safe or cabinet, which is securely closed and bolted and which cannot be removed. In this archive documents which are to be kept under secrecy are to be most carefully guarded."

Canon 489 forbids any documents to be removed from the secret archive under any circumstances and only the Bishop is permitted to have the key to it. The documents which Canon 489 says must be kept in the secret archive are:

• Documents from historic criminal cases (ie within Canon law) concerning "matters of a moral nature"

• Documentary proof of canonical warnings or corrections when someone has been about to commit an offence, or is suspected of having committed one, or has been guilty of scandalous behaviour

• Documents relating to preliminary investigations for a penal process that was closed without a formal trial; and

• Documents relating to any other matters the bishop considers secret.

In simple terms, every diocese has a secret archive of information about past allegations of abuse. I've come across this myself on cases where we've forced the church to make a disclosure affadavit detailing what information is held in the secret archive about a particular priest. The church has accepted in those cases that the secret archive exists and that only the Bishop has access to it, so that only the Bishop can make the disclosure affadavit. I've no doubt that stored in those archives is a mass of information about past abuse allegations. And because so many of these allegations were hushed up at the time, many of them will never have been known to the police. It's time they were.

So the choice for the Catholic church is simple. It has in its possession documentary evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Is it prepared to hand that evidence over to the proper authorities? It is prepared to open the secret archives? It seems to me that there's no better test of whether the Catholic church is genuine about confronting the evil of child abuse by priests.