That’s the sensationalistic headline of this story in the New York Times. As usual, it’s by Laurie Goodstein, and as usual she makes significant errors in her reporting that make the story more sensationalistic in a way that (just coincidentally) paints the Holy See in an unfavorable light. (So . . . what’s up with that, Laurie? You’ve been on the beat long enough that you should be better informed on these matters.)
As with previous stories of the same nature, this one involves a document from back in the 1990s that has now come to the attention of the press. It was a letter written by the Apostolic Nuncio of Ireland (that’s basically the Holy See’s ambassador to Ireland, though he also has a liaising role with the local bishops). In the letter the Nuncio—then Luciano Storero—communicated a message to the Irish bishops from the Congregation for Clergy concerning a document that the Irish bishops had drafted on child sexual abuse.
This letter was immediately hailed by groups like SNAP as the “smoking gun” they’ve been waiting for, showing that the Holy See took part in the cover up of sexual abuse, allowing it to be sued in court, humiliated, and have money extracted from it.
You can read (a tiny, low resolution image of) the letter itself here.
Now let’s walk through it and see how the claims made about it stack up against the document itself . . .
APOSTOLIC NUNCIATURE IN IRELAND
Dublin, 31 January 1997
To: the Members of the Irish Episcopal conference
The Congregation for the Clergy has attentively studied the complex question of sexual abuse or minors by clerics and the document entitled “Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response”, published by the Irish Catholic Bishops Advisory Committee.
So here is what has happened at the time the letter was written: Priests and religious in Ireland abused children. This came to light and caused an enormous scandal. (In fact, it brought down the Irish government.) In response, the Irish bishops conference (in conjunction with the Conference of Religious in Ireland) created an Advisory Committee to draft a document proposing how to respond to cases of child sexual abuse. The result was the document referenced above, which is online here in .pdf form. At least that’s a version of the document. Whether it was the version referenced in the letter is not 100% clear. In any event, this document came to the attention of the Congregation for Clergy in Rome, and now the Congregation for Clergy has asked the Irish nuncio to convey its impressions to the Irish bishops.
Note well: The Congregation for Clergy is not the same as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) was the head of the doctrinal body, not the Congregation for Clergy. The head of that in 1997 was Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos. More on him in a bit. For now the important point—given the press’s invariable attempt to read everything Vatican in terms of the pope himself—is that Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict has no connection with this letter. It wasn’t his department that was involved.
The congregation wishes to emphasize the need for this document to conform to the canonical norms presently in force.
So: The Congregation for Clergy has concerns that provisions in the document did not conform to canon law as it was in 1997. Fair enough. That’s not anything sinister. To give a civil law analogy, it’s a little like warning someone that parts of his proposed law appear to violate the U.S. Constitution. Warning someone that parts of his law appear unconstitutional is not a sinister thing. It’s a way of ensuring justice and avoiding a lot of headaches for everybody.
One might be wrong, and provisions of the law in fact might be fully constitutional (read: canonical), but saying, “Your policy needs to be legal in terms of Church law” is not evidence of evil intent.
The text, however, contains “procedures and dispositions which appear contrary to canonical discipline and which, if applied, could invalidate the actions of the same Bishops who are attempting to put a stop to these problems. If such procedures were to be followed by the Bishops and there were cases of eventual hierarchical recourse lodged at the Holy See, the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities.
So the Congregation for Clergy (who is being quoted in this paragraph; note the open quotation marks) is concerned that some proposals in the Irish Advisory Committee document appear to be contrary to canon law. As a result, bishops acting on those parts of the proposal might take canonical actions against priests that are legally invalid. In other words, there could be miscarriages of justice. So what happens if miscarriages of justice occur? Well, the priests might appeal their case to Rome, and Rome might agree that there was a miscarriage of justice because the law was not applied correctly. In that case the bishop would be put in an embarrassing position.
And that’s quite true. A bishop would be put in an embarrassing and detrimental position if he violated canon law and a miscarriage of justice resulted and his actions had to be undone. There’s nothing sinister about telling a bishop that. People in positions of power need to be reminded regularly that their authority has limits and they must provide justice for those whose cases they handle. The law needs to be followed closely so that we (a) don’t have innocent priests being wrongly convicted and (b) we don’t have predator priests escaping punishment because the law wasn’t followed. The exact same concerns apply in civil courts: We need to follow the law to avoid miscarriages of justice.
Now, you’ll notice something that hasn’t yet been mentioned in this letter: the issue of reporting predators to the police. That hasn’t come up yet. All the discussion so far has been about making sure the Church’s own internal legal system is followed so that we don’t have miscarriages of justice.
How did Laurie Goodstein frame this in her article for the Times? She wrote: “It [the letter] said that for both ‘moral and canonical’ reasons, the bishops must handle all accusations through internal church channels. Bishops who disobeyed, the letter said, may face repercussions when their abuse cases were heard in Rome.”Read more