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1962 document orders secrecy in sex cases
Many bishops unaware obscure missive was in their archives



A 1962 Vatican document ordering secrecy in cases of sexual misconduct by priests is not, according to canon lawyers, a "smoking gun" providing evidence of a cover-up of sex abuse orchestrated by Rome.

Civil attorneys handling lawsuits against the Catholic church have pointed to the document as evidence of obstruction of justice.

For one thing, canon lawyers say, the document was so obscure that few bishops had ever heard of it. For another, they say, secrecy in canonical procedures should not be confused with refusal to cooperate with civil authorities. The 1962 document would not have tied the hands of a bishop, or anyone else, who wanted to report a crime by a priest to the police.

The 39-page document, titled in Latin Crimen Sollicitationis, was issued in March 1962 by the Holy Office (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). It established a procedure for canonical cases in which priests were accused of abusing the confessional to sexually proposition penitents. Four concluding paragraphs extend the procedure to the crimen pessimum, or "worst crime," meaning homosexual acts contrary to a priest's celibate commitment. The document was not designed to address sexual abuse of minors, but would include many such violations.

Paragraph 11 of the document stipulates that such cases are covered by the "secret of the Holy Office," today known as pontifical secrecy, the strictest form of secrecy in church law. Excommunication is prescribed for anyone who violates this secrecy.

The document was itself to be kept secret. Instructions on Page One direct that it be stored in the secret archives of each diocese, and that it not be published or commented upon. Msgr. Thomas Green, canon law expert at The Catholic University of America, told NCR Aug. 4 that unlike most church legislation, Crimen Sollicitationis was never published in the official Vatican bulletin Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

The document recently came to light because it was referenced in a footnote to a May 18, 2002, letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, to the bishops of the world regarding new procedures for sex abuse cases.

Boston attorney Carmen L. Durso sent a copy of the document July 28 to U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, arguing that it may prove the Catholic church has been obstructing justice.

"This document may provide the link in the thinking of all of those who hid the truth for so many years," Durso said, as quoted by the July 29 Worcester Telegram and Gazette. "The constant admonitions that information regarding accusations against priests are to be deemed 'a secret of the Holy Office' may explain, but most certainly do not justify, their actions," Durso told the federal attorney.

Oblate Fr. Francis Morrisey of St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, told NCR Aug. 4 that he doubts the document had such an effect, because few bishops knew Crimen Sollicitationis even existed.

"The document was so secret that it couldn't even be mentioned," Morrisey said. "I'm inclined to believe that most bishops were unaware of its existence and contents until a situation arose, and so it never crossed their mind to take cover under this text."

Crimen Sollicitationis dealt with canonical cases against a priest that could lead to removal from ministry or expulsion from the priesthood. Its imposition of secrecy thus concerned the church's internal disciplinary process. It did not, according to canonical experts, prevent a bishop or anyone else from reporting a crime against a minor to the civil authorities.

"Of course, a bishop couldn't use this document to cover up denunciation of an act of sexual abuse," Morrisey said. "The document simply wasn't made for that purpose."

Green said the document was issued by the Holy Office because it had responsibility for dealing with "serious violations of the sacrament of penance."

Canon lawyers told NCR that secrecy in canonical cases serves three purposes. First, it is designed to allow witnesses and other parties to speak freely, knowing that their responses will be confidential. Second, it allows the accused party to protect his good name until guilt is established. Third, it allows victims to come forward without exposing themselves to publicity. The high degree of secrecy in Crimen Sollicitationis was also related to the fact that it dealt with the confessional.

Those motives for confidentiality, experts say, must be distinguished from a widespread "mentality" that sought to protect the church from scandal by not reporting sexual abuse by priests to the police. As a matter of canon law, the obligation of secrecy in canonical cases does not prohibit a bishop or other church officials from reporting crimes to the proper authorities.

Conflicts may arise, however, if civil authorities seek access to the secret acts of canonical procedures.

That Crimen Sollicitationis was not designed to "cover up" sex abuse, canonists say, is clear in paragraph 15, which obligates anyone with knowledge of a priest abusing the confessional for that purpose to come forward, under pain of excommunication for failing to do so. This penalty is stipulated, the document says, "lest [the offense] remain occult and unpunished and always with inestimable detriment to souls."

Canon lawyers also note that pontifical secrecy is hardly reserved to sexual abuse. Under a Feb. 4, 1974, instruction Secreta Continere, pontifical secrecy covers: 1) Documents for which pontifical secrecy is expressly indicated; 2) Affairs dealt with by the Secretariat of State under pontifical secrecy; 3) Doctrinal denunciations and publications of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as its investigations; 4) Extrajudicial denunciations of crimes against the faith or against morals, and crimes against the sacrament of penance, as well as the procedures leading to these denunciations; 5) Acts by Vatican representatives relative to matters covered by the pontifical secret; 6) Creation of cardinals; 7) Nomination of bishops, apostolic administrators and other ordinaries with episcopal power, and the procedures related to these appointments; 8) Nomination of superiors and other major officials of the Roman curia; 9) Codes and coded correspondence; 10) Affairs and practices of the pope, of the chief cardinal or archbishop of a dicastery and of pontifical representatives.

 John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

Text of article by Archbishop John Bathersby in Brisbane Courier-Mail, Monday 22 April 2002

On Thursday I returned from an Archdiocesan Priests' Assembly at Caloundra. Planned several years ago as a lead up to the first Archdiocesan Synod in 2003, the Assembly attracted the largest gathering of Priests since the Assembly of 1983. Numbers were almost the same, boosted this time by a significant number of Order-based Priests. Despite a scarcity of young Priests, and a disproportionate number of older ones, the gathering was filled with hope and optimism. Falling Church attendance and worldwide sexual abuse scandals hung like a cloud over the discussions but did not destroy a sense of optimism about the Church's future mission.

Nevertheless the recent resignation of Catholic Bishops over sex scandals in America, England, Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere has certainly shaken the confidence of Priests and people alike, leaving us all wondering what on earth has gone wrong. A prominent Catholic lay man said to me recently: "Archbishop it will take the Catholic Church twenty years to recover from this scandal". I thought his timeframe optimistic. At the same time there is an enormous willingness today by Bishops, Priests, and Lay people to tackle the Church's challenges effectively, especially those of sexual misbehaviour. Unless that problem is faced openly Church attendance will continue to decline and Church witness will fail, despite the good work that the Church has done and continues to do in the midst of society at a religious and social level. The problems of the Church are not the problems of a few but the problems of all.

Sexual misbehaviour is by no means a simple problem. It is complex and multi-faceted, one part, I believe, of a larger problem that demands urgent attention. Effective disclosure of criminal behaviour, adequate and generous treatment of victims, intensive screening of and adequate preparation for ordained ministry and religious life, comprehensive education about and prevention strategies in families, and effective protocols, are all needed if there is to be an adequate response to this most horrible of crimes.

But perhaps a greater need, and I can only speak from a Roman Catholic point of view, is for the Church to have a good look a itself, not only the adequacy of its structures and the integrity of its Ministers, but most importantly the soundness of its theology. It seems to me that the problem of the Church is not so much one of predatory sexuality but of power, which has a subtle tendency to convince religious leaders that they are free of the constraints that binds lesser mortals, because of their elevated calling. Sadly such delusions often lead to inappropriate exploitation in areas of sexuality. To try to overturn such attitudes the Church must return to its origins, to Christ and the style of leadership He advocated for His followers. His most significant gesture, found in the Gospel of John, shows Him washing the feet of His disciples. It is a most powerful symbol for Church, and indeed all leaders, but sadly one that although recoginzed is often neglected.

A tension between service and power was present even among the Apostles and seems to have existed in the Church ever since, not at all helped by the Christian conversion of Constantine in the fourth century. The recent Second Vatican Council tried to remedy the situation when it proposed a theology of Church as "communion" and "people of God", where leadership was not over and above the community but rather at its heart. It is a lesson that Church people find difficult to understand, because once inappropriate power is grasped it is extremely difficult to relinquish. Nevertheless there are significant signs of hope and the Presbyteral gathering at Caloundra during the week was such a sign. Until one learns the servant model of leadership espoused by Christ the Church will continue to be afflicted by problems that undermine its mission of good news.

For me that is the very heart of the problem that confronts the Church today, whose probing by the media no matter how aggressively should not be resented but welcomed. After all, the Church does claim the high moral ground of good news, and some of the news coming out of the Churches at the present time is decidedly not good. If the Church wishes to engage the world, as I believe it must, then it needs to come warts and all and should not resent disclosure of its dark side. For too long some Church people have used inappropriate models of leadership whose weaknesses are only now becoming manifest, sadly in the most sensitive area possible, the violation of children.

For me that is the crux of the problem, partially revealed by the close attention of the media at the present time, in which I believe the Holy Spirit is not absent. Until the Church moves closer to the ideal chosen by Christ and elaborated more recently at the Second Vatican Council, then it must do everything in its power to overcome present problems with all the honesty, transparency, and resources that it can muster. To do anything less is to betray the mission of Christ who came that all people, especially the little ones of the world, might have life and life in its fullness.

ROME, August 17, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful during a visit to the Basilica of St. Paul in April. (AP)

Shea says he'll challenge the constitutionality of U.S. recognition of the Vatican as a sovereign state, although similar court challenges have failed in the past.

(AP) A lawyer who's suing Pope Benedict for allegedly covering up the sexual abuse of children by a seminarian says he'll challenge U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Vatican if the pope is given immunity as a head of state.

In the Texas civil lawsuit, Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict -- is accused of conspiring with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to cover up the abuse of three boys during the mid-1990s.

Attorney Daniel Shea, who's representing one of three boys suing the pope, told reporters in Rome that President Bush should ignore a Vatican request to confirm Benedict's immunity.

Otherwise, Shea says he'll challenge the constitutionality of U.S. recognition of the Vatican as a sovereign state, although similar court challenges have failed in the past.