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A conflict of interest?

Opinion Piece

One of New Zealand's diplomatic relations is actually not with another country, but with a peculiar legal corporate person under international law called the Holy See.

The Holy See is often mistakenly referred to as the Vatican. However, the Vatican and the Holy See are not the same things.

Vatican City is a sovereign country whose ruler happens to be the pope. The pope has absolute unchecked power within his realm which makes Vatican City the world's only elected non-hereditary absolute monarchy, and the pope, effectively, a king.

The reason why we seldom hear about the king of Vatican City is because while pope and king are two distinct offices, they just happen to be occupied by the same person at the same time.

The pope is also bishop of Rome, but because he is pope, he has a special throne with its own special name called the Holy See. This throne oversees all other thrones of Catholic bishops worldwide. It effectively constitutes the universal ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the worldwide Catholic Church. In other words, the Holy See is the authority and structure of the Catholic Church operating across the globe.

Catholic tradition claims that the Holy See was founded in the first century by saints Peter and Paul. But Mussolini actually created the current entity when he struck a deal with Pope Pius XI in 1929, giving the land of Vatican City to the Catholic Church. What the Pope and Mussolini created was a legal corporate person in international law with a sovereign geographical territory, Vatican City, under its jurisdiction.

To better explain this phenomenon, by way of analogy, imagine that a powerful international company had a CEO who convinced the New Zealand Crown to give one of its islands to the company. The CEO then made that island a new country and established himself as absolute monarch. He then moved his corporate headquarters to the island so that the company's global outreach could benefit the country, and the laws of the country could benefit the company. As for himself, depending on the situation, sometimes it's good to be CEO of the company, and other times it's good to be king of the country.

So the next time you hear the words “Holy See”, think Catholic Church Incorporated in which the pope is its CEO. And when someone speaks of the Vatican as the Catholic Church's government and global outreach, think Holy See.

But the odd thing about this setup is the fact that the Holy See maintains special bilateral diplomatic relations with about 180 sovereign states, including New Zealand. It also performs multilateral diplomacy with multiple intergovernmental organisations. In other words, New Zealand recognises the company — the Catholic Church Incorporated — and not the country, Vatican City. We also sign concordats and treaties with that global company.

Stranger still, the Holy See claims a need to exercise its mission in full freedom when dealing with every interlocutor. Though because of its history and influence, such claims have never been subjected to any critical examination. Thus, the Holy See has been able to escape the scrutiny applied to all sovereign states, one of which it is not.

In fact, the Holy See, otherwise Catholic Church Incorporated, has been able to use all the privileges granted to it by real states to hide a multitude of very serious crimes, the most odious being the systemic rape of helpless and innocent children by its priests, bishops and even cardinals around the world, and the cover-up of those crimes.

Therefore, as New Zealand's Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care looks into what happened to children, young people and adults at risk in the care of the Catholic Church in New Zealand, perhaps the commission could investigate the Holy See's non-compliance with international conventions in respect of child abuse by its personnel, along with the role of the Catholic Church's laws and internal regulations in impeding child protection, and even its insurance contracts being used to indemnify itself against legal liability from survivor complaints — not to mention how “Te Houhanga Rongo/A Path To Healing”, the NZ Catholic Church's redress scheme for victims of clergy and religious sexual abuse, helps the Church, rather than the victims.

Let's see if the commission would recommend that the Government break ties with such a criminal organisation operating in our country, claiming tax exemptions while it has used its diplomatic immunity and other privileges to hide its crimes and shield its paedophiles.

If our Government would perform such a courageous and honourable act, then New Zealand would become the first country in the world to get it right. If it doesn't, then even the Government itself could be complicit in the Catholic Church's systemic child sexual abuse scandal, ongoing coverup, and deception.

Matthew Epsom

  1. Martin Hanson says:

    Catherine Corless is an amateur historian, and until 2014 she was unknown to the general public in Ireland. For weeks she had been researching records in churches, libraries and council offices while investigating the deaths of children in St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway. It had been run by nuns of the Bon Secours order. She found that, between 1925 and 1961, 796 children had died, but could find a burial record for only one child. In the 1970s some boys had discovered a pile of children’s skeletons, and Corless thought it possible that the bodies may have been put in a disused septic tank in a corner of the home’s garden. Despite her concerns, there was no response from local newspapers and radio stations to her concerns, and neither was there any concern expressed by local clergy or the police.
    Everything changed when a relative of one of the dead children spoke to a Dublin journalist. The possibility that dead babies had been dumped in a septic tank exploded onto the front pages of the international media. In response, the Irish government began in inquiry chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy into what had been going on in Tuam and other care homes in Ireland.
    After five years the report by the Mother and Baby Home Commission into the treatment mothers and children in care homes in the 20th century was published on January 12 this year. According to the report, of the 18 institutions investigated, about 9000 of the 57,000 children (about 15 percent) died between 1922 and 1998. Particularly disquieting was the very high rate of infant (first year of life) mortality. Though the death rate among ‘illegitimate’ children in Irish society as a whole was always considerably higher than it was among ‘legitimate’ children, it was higher still in mother and baby homes: in the years 1945-46, the death rate among infants in mother and baby homes was almost twice that of the national average for ‘illegitimate’ children.
    Conditions in the homes can only described as brutal; the women were forced to work scrubbing floors on their knees while being called ‘fallen’, ‘sinner’, ‘dirt’ and ‘spawn of Satan’. One witness said that one of the nuns would dirty the floor after she had cleaned it. She would have to clean it again.
    What was absent was everything the Catholic Church claimed to stand for. For centuries the Catholic Church had arrogated for itself the role of moral standard-bearer, yet the nuns couldn’t even manage human kindness.
    Since the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 the Catholic Church dominanted Irish society and its institutions, until recently. Only a few decades ago it would have been unthinkable that the Catholic Church should be publicly excoriated by a public figure. But beginning in the 1990s a series of criminal cases and government enquiries established that hundreds of priests had sexually abused thousands of children over decades. As a result the Catholic Church lost its power and much of its influence; Ireland is now effectively a secular state; same-sex marriage became legal in 2015 and abortion followed in 2018.
    The taboo that had hitherto protected the Church had crumbled, and it became ‘safe’ to speak bluntly about the its evils. The reaction from politicians to the publication of the Report was swift and unequvocal. Prime Minister Micheal Martin said that young women and their children had paid a heavy price for Ireland’s “perverse religious morality” in past decades. “We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy. Young mothers and their sons and daughters paid a terrible price for that dysfunction”.
    No doubt it will be said that it’s unfair to put all the blame on the Catholic Church. It was the families that ostracised and rejected women who became pregnant outside wedlock and forced them to seek ‘refuge’ in care homes.
    But this is to miss the point; every Sunday, congregations were verbally pummelled from the pulpit that sex before marriage was sinful; families were simply acting out Catholic doctrine.
    “Love the sinner but hate the sin” is a famous quote from one of St Augustine’s letters. In the context of the wicked behavior of nuns in care homes, it’s deeply ironic. Even for those die-hard Catholics who still consider that sex before marriage is ‘sinful’, the treatment of unmarried mothers and their ‘illegitimate’ children in Catholic-run care homes was more a case of ‘hate the sin, and hate the sinner even more’.
    One might even add: ‘and take it out on the children’.

    1. Esther Richards, Tauranga says:

      When giving birth, they were often left alone to go through it too. Doctors/midwives were not involved. These were young girls/women who had no idea what was happening to them, nor did they fully understand how they had even gotten pregnant as the ‘facts of life’ were never explained to them. Can you imagine what an horrific experience this must have been?

  2. Mike Ledingham, Palmerston North says:

    For me they long wore out any right for “special treatment or any dispensation”. Basically they are a criminal organisation preying on vulnerable people, especially children, covering up their crimes and criminals, using members in high places, ie politicians, lawyers, judges and policemen to intercede for them and stop any progress in criminal action. They are a despicable, shameful and disgraced organisation. Catholicism has become synonymous with child abuse worldwide.
    Governments need to step up and withdraw privileges and tax-free status.
    Paedophilia has existed in their ranks for so long, I think it’s accepted as the norm amongst the clergy. Let’s stamp these people out!

  3. Ann David, Waikanae says:

    This is a horrifying revelation. Thank you, Matthew Epsom. I can’t bear to think of the sovereign state of NZ treating unwittingly with a religious organisation (of whatever persuasion) as if it were another sovereign state. It is time the NZ state rid itself of politico-religious affiliations of all types. This would include the Ratana church which has strangely become a quasi-political intrigue.

    We are, allegedly, a secular state. At the last census, more than 50 percent of the people declared themselves to have no religious affiliation at all and this trend is likely to increase.

    Perhaps this year of political hiatus imposed by the Ratana church itself is a good thing.

    Let religions appeal to their adherents. Let politicians appeal to their electorates. And let the two never meet as a deliberate, expedient, contrivance. I see governments more at fault in this regard than religious organisations: it’s governments seeking support at the ballot box in this devious manner.

    MMP is some protection.

  4. Jennifer E, Auckland says:

    Both the pope and the government could say tomorrow – full disclosure to civil authorities, dismissal of any cleric or religious accused and proven and convicted, complete openness and transparency, stop all barriers to legal process, and completely cooperate with civil authorities, OR go to prison for obstruction of justice.

  5. Lloyd Gretton, Auckland says:

    When non-Catholics are accused of these abuse practices, it is called the Q Anon conspiracy and covered up.

  6. Bob Hughes says:

    Hi Martin
    My research has it St. Augustine’s letter of 424 contained the phrase Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly to “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.”
    It was in Mohandas Gandhi’s 1929 autobiography that the more famous “hate the sin and not the sinner” first appeared.
    Gandhi has been dead for over 70 years. Now there’s another saying much the same. “If you see someone doing something wrong, condemn the action, not the person”.-Sadhguru.
    But the quote I like best is Gandhi’s: The future depends on what you do today.
    I agree all past child abuses of the religious sect and others should be exposed and all possible done to halt and prevent future occurrences of the same.
    With the little time humanity has left here, we all need to begin treating our children, each other and every other living thing – including our mother planet – far more kindly.

  7. Alex C, Whakatane says:

    The Catholic Church is very patient and thinks in centuries, not years. Can the Royal Commission even take on the Roman Catholic Church no matter how corrupt that Church continues to be? I think we should all be very patient because the more time and resources given to this inquiry, the greater the chances are that we might get it right, as Matthew Epsom suggests, and kick out this criminal institution on our land. However, I would caution that the victims of the abuse must remain the centre of attention and be the ultimate beneficiaries. No one else.

  8. James, Lower Hutt says:

    The Vatican has just released its most detailed financial disclosures ever, including its real estate holdings. Apparently it owns more than 5000 properties, 4,051 in Italy and about 1,120 abroad, many in upmarket areas of London, Geneva, Lausanne and Paris. This doesn’t include its embassies around the world which belong to the Holy See, which has a separate budget.
    The Holy See’s budget includes the central administration of the Roman Catholic church, known as the Curia, that oversees the governing of the 1.3 billion-member worldwide church, its global diplomatic representations and media operations.
    A separate consolidated financial statement for the Holy See, issued in the same report, showed that the Holy See took about €50m from Peter’s Pence, a fund of donations to help the pope carry out the church’s worldwide work, to plug the 2020 Holy See’s operational deficit.
    This Tuesday, there will be a trial in the Vatican of 10 people in connection with financial crimes including embezzlement, money laundering, fraud, extortion and abuse of office.
    It will probably be a whitewash – just an attempt to create an image to restore the Vatican’s credibility in economic matters. But this has been long shot by the cover-ups of its personnel raping children around the world and refusal to then pay out for those crimes after getting caught.