Home > Law, Culture and Religion > The Murphy Commission Report from a Legal Pluralist Perspective

The Murphy Commission Report from a Legal Pluralist Perspective

Having read the Murphy Commission report I wanted to quickly summarise what it shows. The summary is very much coloured by my own research interests, which focus on the relationship between civil and religious law and is not intended to be comprehensive. Some of the main issues raised by the report are:

  • The nature of the interaction between canon and civil law in the governance of priests who had abused children. This is of relevance to the behaviour of individual agents within the church, who knew canon law but ignored relevant principles, and who favoured canon over civil law.  Many of the churchmen involved in the mass coverup of child sex abuse within the church were qualified lawyers.  The operation of canon law in relation to child sex abuse within the diocese is outlined in Chapter 4 of the report.
  • The interaction between churchmen’s loyalty to the state as citizens and fidelity to the church, and the consequences when there is a perceived conflict between them.
  • The effective construction in Ireland of a parallel legal system – with canonical trials and rules of its own about evidence and secrecy and culpability, riven with disputes about interpretation and content  – beyond the reach of civil law, which was capable – through ‘soft’ structures of government and police deference and societal respect, trust and fear  of isolating itself from the criminal justice system. That isolation was actively reinforced every time an abuse took place and those in power responded inappropriately.
  • The manner in which that parallel system was bolstered by undue deference to the church, and the relationship between that ‘soft’ deference and the hard law governing the relationship between church and state in Ireland. Did the church-state relationship and the tendency of successive governments towards the privatisation of church affairs insulate both church and state from responsibility to children?  The report seems to favour a more interventionist state, which has influence over certain aspects of church affairs. It refers to the secular functions performed by the church and the attendant blurring of the boundaries between church and state.
  • The ‘complicity’ of other areas of domestic law in bolstering the harm done under canon law. Criminal law (see Appendix 2 to the Report), the law of evidence in relation to legal privilege, rules of procedure where delay has occurred in processing a prosecution, and child protection law are obvious candidates, but we should think too about how insurance law contributed to the church’s aim of preserving its assets.
  • The effect of parallel legal systems on minority members of religious groups, such as children and the role of the civil legal system in providing an effective and empowering space within which victims of resultant harm can disrupt prevailing power relations within a religious group. One victim is mentioned as saying of the Archdiocesan officials: “you deal with me when I’m a threat to you legally but when I’m not a threat to you, you ignore me”.

What the Murphy Commission Report tells us is that impunity is produced by interaction between civil law and minority laws – in the work of individual legal subjects and in the actions of the state.

We have some in-house contributors who can post on a number of these issues, and you can expect commentary in due course. However, if any reader -in Ireland or elsewhere – has expertise enough to contribute a guest post on these or related topics you are most welcome to email maireadenright[at]gmail.com within the next 10 days or so with your proposal.


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