By Sean Murphy
To the editor:
Christopher Hitchens' venomous attack on Pope Benedict XVI ("The Great Catholic Coverup", 18 March, 2010) is a revelation that deserves wider attention. Were it not for its appearance in Slate in the United States and in the National Post in Canada, it would be difficult to believe that a reputable newspaper would publish such absurdity.
Mr. Hitchens states that in May, 2001, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger sent a "confidential" letter to Catholic bishops to remind them that anyone who disclosed "child rape and torture" by priests would be excommunicated. He claims that Cardinal Ratzinger imposed a ten year "statute of limitations" on actions against such priests, and was thus guilty of "obstruction of justice."
These assertions are false.
The 2001 instruction1 was issued to clarify how reports of clerical sexual misconduct were to be handled.2 Ratzinger's directive actually facilitated Church proceedings against clerical sex offenders by extending time limits that had previously hampered prosecutions.3 Limitations of action are not unique to Canon Law. They exist in secular legal jurisdictions,4 and can prevent prosecution of serious sex crimes.5
The so-called "confidential" instruction was published and appeared in English in 2001.6 It has been 'discovered,' 'revealed' or 'exposed' by so many reporters since then that it might give pause to those who doubt the possibility of the resurrection of the dead.7 Certainly, Mr. Hitchens' wild fabrication that Cardinal Ratzinger threatened to excommunicate anyone who revealed "child rape and torture" has trumped the rhetoric of his predecessors. However, lurid prose is hardly a substitute for sound research.
Bishops were not "reminded" by Cardinal Ratzinger of secrecy or excommunication. The passage quoted by Mr. Hitchens as 'proof' of his extravagant claim is not (as his readers might believe) from Ratzinger's instruction. It is from Crimen Sollicitationis, a 1962 instruction8 that Ratzinger merely noted had been under review.9
Virtually all of Crimen Sollicitationis concerned the investigation and prosecution of complaints of sexual solicitation of penitents by priests in confession.10 Such procedures are difficult and sensitive because the seal of confession cannot be violated; a priest cannot break the seal even to defend himself against an accusation.11 The same policies and procedures were to be adapted and applied to the "worst crimes," including sexual aggression against minors.12
Crimen Sollicitationis did not threaten excommunication of people who revealed "child rape and torture" by priests. On the contrary: it imposed not only a duty to denounce such crimes (and the lesser offence of solicitation) to the bishop, but the automatic excommunication of anyone who knowingly failed to do so.13
Officials investigating or involved in proceedings pertaining to these "unspeakable crimes" were required to take an oath of perpetual secrecy, on pain of excommunication.14 This was the passage perverted by Mr. Hitchens' selective quotation and extraordinary accusation. An oath of secrecy was also to be given to witnesses in the proceedings, but was not, it seems, to be backed by a threat of excommunication.15 Analogous oaths of secrecy and confidentiality are taken by secular professionals and officials. Confidentiality is usually maintained during secular investigations, and secular proceedings – Family Court hearings for example – sometimes proceed in secret.16
Media reports over the last several years have mentioned some of the reasons the Church had for secrecy: protecting the seal of confession, ensuring the integrity of an investigation, shielding victims from publicity and encouraging them to come forward, and protecting reputations before guilt has been established.17
Of course, such reasons are not always justified and not always persuasive. What is significant, however, is that canon law specialists consulted about Crimen Sollicitationis, while properly critical of wrongful conduct by bishops and priests, have dismissed the theory that the document was meant to cover up clerical wrongdoing, or that it was used for that purpose.18
It would be unfair to conclude that Mr. Hitchens deliberately distorted and withheld all of this information. One hesitates to attribute his failings to malicious anti-catholic bigotry.
Perhaps he was just remarkably careless in his reading and incompetent in his research.
Powell River, B.C.
A more extensive response to Hitchens' accusations is available here.
and in pdf format here
1. Epistula Congregatione pro Doctrina Fidei missa ad totius Catholicae Ecclesiae Episcopos aliosque Ordinarios et Hierarchas interesse habentes: de delictis gravioribus eidem Congregationi pro Doctrina Fidei reservatis (Accessed 2010-03-19)
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to Bishops of the entire Catholic Church and other Ordinaries and Hierarchs having an interest regarding the more serious offenses reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (English translation from Origins 31:32, January 24, 2001. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
2. Catholic World News, "New rules give Vatican responsibility for certain clerical discipline." 7 January, 2002 (Accessed 2010-03-19)
". . .the CDF letter had as one important aim to settle certain procedural questions among canonists as to which canonical crimes are "reserved" to CDF per 1983 CIC 1362, that is, which ecclesiastical offenses are considered serious enough that Rome itself could adjudicate the case instead of allowing the normal canons on penal jurisdiction to operate (e.g., 1983 CIC 1408, 1412). These canons were on the books long before the clergy sexual abuse crisis erupted, but their interpretation had been disputed. CDF’s letter cleared up much of the confusion." Peters, Edward N., "Much Ado About Not Much." In the Light of the Law: A Canon Lawyer’s Blog on Current Issues, 27 April, 2005. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
3. ". . .in extending jurisdiction over these cases to 10 years past the alleged victim’s 18[th] birthday, CDF actually increased the amount of time that Church officials (whether diocesan or Roman) had to prosecute these offenses. Before CDF’s letter, canonical prosecutions were complicated by unduly short statutes of limitations—the very same problem, by the way, that state prosecutions encountered in many pedophilia cases. CDF was hardly obstructing justice; it was trying to make justice more available." Peters, Edward N., "Much Ado About Not Much." In the Light of the Law: A Canon Lawyer’s Blog on Current Issues, 27 April, 2005. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
6. Origins 31:32, January 24, 2001. (http://www.bishop-accountability.org/resources/resource-files/churchdocs/EpistulaEnglish.htm) Accessed 2010-03-19.
7. Catholic media reported on and explained the instruction in January, 2002 (See note 2). Newspapers in Massachusetts published stories about the document Mr. Hitchens quotes in July, 2003. CBS News tried to take credit for the news the following month. The Observer, cited by Mr. Hitchens, purported to break the story in 2005, while the BBC ‘exposed’ the instruction in 2006. A CBS feature ‘discovered’ it in late 2009. URL’s available upon request.
8. Supremae Sacrae Congregationis Sancti Officii, Instructio de modo procendi in causis de crimine sollicitationis. 16 March, 1962. (Accessed 2010-03-19). Hereinafter Crimen Sollicitationis (Latin)
The Supreme and Holy Congregation of the Holy Office, On the manner of proceeding in cases of the crime of solicitation. 16 March, 1962 (Accessed 2010-03-19). Hereinafter Crimen Sollicitationis (English).
9. ". . .the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith . . . devoted itself to a diligent study of the canons on delicts both of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. . . because the instruction Crimen Sollicitationis . . . in force until now, was to be reviewed when the new canonical codes were promulgated. . ." Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to Bishops of the entire Catholic Church and other Ordinaries and Hierarchs having an interest regarding the more seriouis offenses reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (English translation from Origins 31:32, January 24, 2001. (Accessed 2010-03-19). Emphasis added.
While there was some question as to whether or not the document had been superseded with the proclamation of the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983, the phrase, "in force until now" clearly established that Crimen Sollicitationis certainly ceased to be in effect with the publication of the new instruction. (Compare Wooden, Cindy, "Vatican Official says 1962 norms on solicitation no longer apply." Catholic News Service, 7 August, 2003 [Accessed 2010-03-19] with Doyle, Thomas, The 1962 Vatican Instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, promulgated March 16, 1962, 1 April, 2008, paragraphs 2, 4-6. [Accessed 2010-03-19])
10. 70 of 74 paragraphs concern solicitation.
11. "‘The bulk of the document instructs bishops on how to investigate such cases, placing great emphasis on secrecy to preserve the seal of confession,’ said the Rev. Ladislas Orsy, professor of canon law at Georgetown University. ‘You're dealing with an extremely delicate situation, because the priest cannot reveal anything that was said, even to defend himself,’ he said." Cooperman, Alan, Vatican "Memo Cited in Sex Abuse Cases: Significance of 1962 Secrecy Order Disputed." Washington Post, 25 August, 2003. (Accessed 2010-03-19).
15. Crimen Sollicitationis (Latin); Crimen Sollicitationis (English), paragraph 13. See also Doyle, Thomas, The 1962 Vatican Instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, promulgated March 16, 1962, 1 April, 2008, paragraph 15. (Accessed 2010-03-19).
17. Allen, John L.,"1962 document orders secrecy in sex cases: many bishops unaware obscure missive was in their archives." National Catholic Reporter, 7 August, 2003 (Accessed 2010-03-19); Peters, Edward N., "Much Ado About Not Much." In the Light of the Law: A Canon Lawyer’s Blog on Current Issues, 27 April, 2005. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
18. Fr. Francis Morrisey, St. Paul’s University: "Of course, a bishop couldn't use this document to cover up denunciation of an act of sexual abuse. . .The document simply wasn't made for that purpose." Allen, John L., "1962 document orders secrecy in sex cases: many bishops unaware obscure missive was in their archives." National Catholic Reporter, 7 August, 2003 (Accessed 2010-03-19)
Rev. Ladislas Orsy, Georgetown University: "This document reflects a mentality and a policy. I do not think [the document] initiated it. And I do not think as a practical matter [the document] contributed much to it, because for the most part this document was just sitting in the archives," he said. "But it is a manifestation of it." Cooperman, Alan, "Vatican Memo Cited in Sex Abuse Cases: Significance of 1962 Secrecy Order Disputed." Washington Post, 25 August, 2003. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
Rev. Thomas Doyle: "According to the document, accusers and witnesses are bound by the secrecy obligation during and after the process but certainly not prior to the initiation of the process. There is no basis to assume that the Holy See envisioned this process to be a substitute for any secular legal process, criminal or civil. It is also incorrect to assume, as some have unfortunately done, that these two Vatican documents are proof of a conspiracy to hide sexually abusive priests or to prevent the disclosure of sexual crimes committed by clerics to secular authorities." Doyle, Thomas, The 1962 Vatican Instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, promulgated March 16, 1962, 1 April, 2008, paragraphs 2, 4-6. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
Note that this is consistent with Doyle’s position on the document in 2003, but not with his statements in a BBC documentary in 2006. Compare "Thomas Doyle on Crimen Sollicitationis." 1 October, 2006 (Accessed 2010-03-22) and Cooperman, Alan, "Vatican Memo Cited in Sex Abuse Cases: Significance of 1962 Secrecy Order Disputed." Washington Post, 25 August, 2003. (Accessed 2010-03-19).