Can religion encroach into other systems of criminal law?

Religion and the Law

Many religions have their own sets of laws which form fundamental aspects of that religion, for example Sharia Law forms a fundamental part of Islam and recently we have seen the adoption of Sharia Courts in the UK. A religion which has been present throughout the UK for much longer than Islam has been the Catholic faith which brings with it the concept of Canon Law.

Canon Law

What is Canon Law?

Within the Catholic Church throughout the world there is a certain legal structure called Canon Law.

Under this legal structure it is the duty of each diocesan bishop to administer that law. There are certain serious offences against Canon Law which have to be referred to the Holy See to ensure that the proper justice is administered – full clarification on this was again given in 2001.

Are the offences against Canon Law also offences against the Criminal Law?

Some of the offences are not criminal offences in public law such as profanation of the Sacraments whereas others are such as offences against children.

What role does the Holy See play when informed of these offences?

The role of the Holy See is to offer guidance and advice so as to ensure that the proper procedures are followed.

What are the proper procedures?

The proper procedures which will need to be followed in these cases include the confidentiality of required to protect the good name of the witnesses and victims and also in the case of the accused until the trial is finished – these are all aspects of a responsible legal procedure.

When can there be a problem arising between the civil and the criminal law?

One of the most common offences which have been associated with the Catholic Church in recent times has been sexual offences committed against Children in contravention of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This is clearly an offence in contravention of the criminal law in England and Wales and as stated above is also an offence against Canon Law. This can often be a difficult position as if the Holy See was informed concerning such an offence happening within the Catholic Church they may wish to carry out their own procedures under Canon Law but decide not to inform the criminal justice system in order to protect the good name of the church.

Does Canon Law try itself prohibit the Criminal Justice System being informed of such cases?

Currently there is nothing in the requirements of Canon Law which prohibits or impedes the reporting of criminal offences to the police.

It has been stated that since 2001 the Holy See working through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has encouraged disclosure to the criminal authorities when they have received evidence of child abuse which they also have the responsibility of pursuing. It has been stated that it is a responsibility under Canon Law to do this.

Furthermore the Canonical procedure will be put on hold until the criminal investigation is complete.

This may be a fundamental principle under Canon Law but it is one that it is often felt is not put into practice with many people feeling that the principles of the church are put before the welfare of the child – something which should always be the paramount concern.  

Have there been any other improvements to the system?

There have also been some recent developments in relation to Canon Law and offences against children which has led to the following:

  • The inclusion in canon law of internet offences against children

  • The extension of child abuse offences to include the sexual abuse of any individual under 18 years old

  • The case by case waiving of the statute of limitations

  • The establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders

What is the position in England and Wales?

Since 2001 the agreed policy in England and Wales which is required to be followed by all bishops is to report all allegations of the abuse of children within the Catholic Church to the police or social services – this applies regardless of how far back the abuse dates.

This enables clear protection procedures to be in place for each and every parish as well as independent supervision at diocesan and national level.

Reportedly good relationships and links are being built between the Catholic Church and the police and social services in certain areas throughout England and Wales.