As the world absorbs the news of the appointment of the new Pope, it is time to ask how the next Supreme Leader of the Catholic Church can meet its most urgent challenge, of stopping its priests sexually molesting small boys.

There have been, on a realistic estimate, over 100,000 such victims since 1981 when Joseph Ratzinger became head of the Vatican office which declined to defrock paedophiles and instead approved their removal to other parishes and other countries.

These widespread and systematic sexual assaults can collectively be described as a crime against humanity. The church cannot atone just by paying compensation. Unless the new Pope installs a policy that minimises danger to children, he, like Benedict, will become complicit in ongoing but avoidable abuse.

Zero tolerance

First, and most obviously, there must be zero tolerance for paedophile priests. They must be automatically defrocked as soon as their Bishop learns of their crime. There must be no delay, and certainly no appeal to the Vatican – it was there that Ratzinger’s preference for avoiding scandal permitted so many paedophiles to be forgiven, and then to re-offend. There is ample evidence now, from Ireland, America and Europe, that the Vatican has conspired to thwart prosecutors and protect clerical criminals.

The Pope is the source of Canon law, which directs that allegations of child molestation be investigated in utter secrecy, by a “trial” loaded in favour of clerics who if found guilty are “punished” for the most part by orders for prayer and penitence. This must be changed, by recognition that child molestation is a serious offence which cannot be dealt with in a secret ecclesiastical procedure.

Allegations must be reported to the police. The Vatican pretends that it made this change in 2011, when new “guidelines” were issued reminding Bishops to co-operate with law enforcement authorities, but only when local law requires it (and many countries still do not have laws compelling the reporting of child abuse).

These “guidelines” are not incorporated into Canon law: Bishops are not told to hand evidence over to the police, and priests are not required to inform on brothers whom they know (often through confession) to be molesting children. There is no duty to suspend a suspected priest.

Even in countries where local Bishops have bowed to political pressure and announced that public prosecutors will be told of sex abuse allegations, there is always a qualification: “Only if the victim consents”. It is all too easy for young victims and trusting parents to be counseled that the victim’s best interests lie in allowing the church to deal with the matter “in its own way” without involving the police.

So criminal priests escape prosecution because officials, in order to protect the reputation of their church, pressure and persuade families to have complaints dealt with in secret under Canon law processes.

His book - The Case of the Pope can be ordered through the RDFRS online store