Thomas P Doyle
The secret secret of the Vatican
Andrew Brown’s Blog

Tom Doyle – My Comments on Andrew Brown’s Blog

July 23, 2010

Mr. Brown is incorrect about a number of points.  The 1922 and 1962 documents were sent to every bishop in the world.  The copies were sent by diplomatic pouch to the various papal ambassadors (called either Nuncios or Apostolic Delegates) throughout the world.  From there they were sent by regular mail.  How do I know this?  I am presuming it because that was the way it was done when I worked at the Vatican embassy in Washington D.C.  in the eighties. 

The bishops were ordered to keep the document secret.  It was not published in the usual manner.  Nevertheless it was available in chancery offices.  Several bishops have testified that they knew of the 1962 document because they were told about it in seminary or they attended mandatory conferences about it.  The fact that it was actually used to process cases of sexual abuse by clergy is demonstrated by the presence of documents in diocesan files that have been uncovered....documents that were part of the processes used from either the 1922 or 1962 norms, both of which are identical.

The Vatican Council started in 1962 and ran until 1965.  There can be no doubt that many bishops were aware of the 1962 decree.  It was not discussed at the council because specific parts of canon law were not discussed at the council and that is what this was and is.  Whether or not sex abuse was discussed at the council is a good question and can possibly be answered accurately by people who were present at the council.  There are a few left, especially those who were there as experts.

The 1983 Code had a five year statute of limitations.  That is true, but the 1922 and 1962 documents had no such statute and it was the 1962 document that provided the law in force up to 2001 and not the Code.

Much more to the point however is that arguing whether the bishops knew about these processes in the post-conciliar period up to the final days of the 20th century is meaningless and irrelevant.  The lack of clarity in Canon Law (so they claim) is not the reason why sexually abusive priests were shifted from assignment to assignment.  The bishops didn’t do what they did in stone-walling and covering up because they were perplexed over unclear Church rules.  The evidence produced by legitimate investigations throughout the U.S., in Ireland, Canada and now Europe shows a consistent and systematic practice of cover-up and deception throughout every country where clergy sex abuse has been uncovered.  Is this the result of a conscious conspiracy?  Is it the response to secret orders from the Vatican?  I believe the more accurate explanation is neither of these although there are clear elements of conspiracy found in several countries and there is also evidence that the Vatican encouraged a policy of silence.  I believe the explanation lies in the very culture of the institutional Catholic Church. 

The Church is a visible institution.  The Church teaches as official dogma that the Church as we know it, that is, a hierarchical structure that is totally run by celibate male clerics (mostly bishops), was instituted by Jesus Himself.  The Church teaches that the pope is the representative (Vicar) of Christ on earth. It teaches that Christ founded His church and left it in the control of the twelve apostles and explicitly willed that these apostles pass this power down to their successors.  Consequently the official teaching is that the visible church is run by men who have been explicitly chosen by the Supreme Being.  Furthermore the Church teaches that priests are fundamentally different than other humans.  They are, in the words of John Paul II, uniquely configured to Christ.  Catholics are taught to believe that priests are special.  They represent Jesus Christ.  They have very special spiritual powers. Their intercession is essential for anyone who wishes to make it to heaven in the next life.

This teaching is the foundation for the clerical culture that runs the Church.  Clericalism is the belief that clerics (deacons, priests and bishops) are superior to lay persons and are rightfully entitled to deference, unquestioned respect and exemption from many of the obligations born by most lay people.  This clerical world is the home of the men who make up the Church power structure.  The Church teaches that this structure is the church.  To be a Catholic, one must believe totally in the teachings about the nature of the church strictures and the sacredness of the Church’s clerical ministers.

If all of these teachings were true, would there be a need for all of the secrecy?  If these teachings were true, especially about the “Christ-like” nature of priests and bishops, would there be such widespread corruption, dishonesty and abuse found among clerics at every level? 

If all of these things were true!   The problem is that there is no authentic historical evidence that any of it is true.  The various titles, roles and offices attributed to popes, bishops and priests are not products of divine revelation but of human invention, often as a response and reaction to serious external threats to the power and wealth of the clerical aristocracy.  For example, and it’s a good example, Papal Infallibility was literally invented by Pope Pius IX and forced through the First Vatican Council...for political reasons.  The pope’s kingdom, the Papal States, was threatened with dissolution by the Italian social upheaval at the time.  Likewise the title “Vicar of Christ” was part of a conscious program of a medieval pope to fortify papal power.  This title has had a long and complex and by no means consistent history.  It was not applied to the Papacy until the 13th century when Pope Innocent III took it to enhance his overall program of actively concentrating just about all power in the Church in the papacy.

Consequently this massive institution seeks above all to preserve itself.  Sexual abuse of children or anyone by members of the sacred elite is potentially disastrous for the image, credibility and hence the power of the Church.  The bishops really believe that they are essential to the existence of the Church.  Therefore protecting the hierarchy is essential and believed to be God’s will.  The popes and the bishops did not have to conspire to keep sexual abuse by clergy buried as deeply as possible.  The secretive response is in the blood of the bishops.  It is rooted in the fundamental urge to survive.  Disruption and disintegration of the monarchical structures of the Church means the end of the system of power and control as we know it.  This poses an unthinkable threat to the clergy and to the clerical world.  The threat is personal because this world, this monarchical institution, this magical theological support system is the past, present and future of the bishops.  It is their source of identity.  To change or destroy it is a threat to the very being of the clerics who feed off of it.

The latest set of responses, more properly excuses, from the official church includes the assertion that the CDF only assumed control over cases of clergy abuse in 2001 and that there was some sort of power struggle between the Congregation for the Clergy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over who would control abuse cases.  Unfortunately for those who expound this theory, history is not on their side.  The Holy Office, as the CDF was known from 1908 to 1965, has had competence or control over abuse cases for decades.  From the sixteenth century cases of the sexual misdeeds of the clergy were subject to the Holy Inquisition as the Holy Office was known until 1908.  The 1922 and 1962 official decrees both clearly state that cases were subject to the Holy Office.  This control was specified again in 2001 but the difference was that by 2001 the ordinary process for voluntary laicization had been transferred to the Congregation for the Sacraments (in February 1989).  The idea that the CDF under Ratzinger did not know it had the power to process clergy abuse cases is preposterous.


The speculation about a power struggle between Castrillon-Hoyos and Ratzinger over competence is not worth the effort because it’s meaningless as a potential excuse for negligent bishops.  The Congregation for the Clergy, run at one time by Castrillon-Hoyos, had authority to handle recourse from diocesan clergy who were taking issue with decrees or actions of their bishops by way of the administrative recourse process.  There appears to have been involvement of both congregations with the case of the notorious Msgr. Trupia from Tucson, with Castrillon-Hoyos voicing positions that seemed at odds with the approach of Ratzinger at the CDF. That was more evidence of the cardinal’s twisted views on handling abusive priests than it was an inter-congregation power struggle.  In any event the entire question is irrelevant as a realistic excuse for the bishops’ collective inaction. The apologists for the papacy, the Vatican and the bishops continue to look for inconsistencies in the church’s law or problems with the church’s structures as a possible excuse for the consistently irresponsible and destructive way the hierarchy from top to bottom has handled the plague of clergy sex abuse.  They apparently find it difficult to face the option that the bishops covered up and lied because they wanted to cover up and lie. There is far too much concrete documented evidence from thousands of cases brought before the civil courts in the U.S., Ireland and Canada, from the grand jury investigations in the U.S. and from the three independent inquiries in Ireland to arrive at any other conclusion especially a conclusion as outlandish as blaming it all on the myth that the bishops really wanted to do something but couldn’t because canon law prevented it.

The secret secret of the Vatican

Andrew Brown’s Blog

The Vatican's policy on paedophile priests was so secret that not even the bishops knew about it.

Was there a centrally organised cover up of child abuse within the Catholic church? This is one of the main charges against the institution. I don't believe it myself; I think there were disorganised and decentralised efforts to conceal scandal, just as there are in almost any organisation which discovers paedophiles working for it, from Islington Council to the United Nations. It doesn't excuse the efforts that were made, but it doesn't suggest, either, that the Vatican is a uniquely wicked institution.

The main charge against the church in this context is that there was a document – itself secret – which bound bishops to secrecy when dealing with cases of child abuse. It seems clear that very few people knew of the document in question (Crimen Sollicitationis), which dated from 1922. This states that it is the CDF (the Vatican department that enforces orthodoxy) which must deal with the use of the confessional for sexual exploitation and with the abuse of pre-adolescent children, which is described in the document as crimen pessimum, the worst of all crimes.

But the document was never properly issued. Like the planning application to demolish the earth in Hitchikers' Guide to the Galaxy, it never reached most of the bishops who needed to know of it. It was not, for example, reprinted for all the bishops at the Second Vatican Conference. One might think that there was not much use in having a policy of secrecy so secret that not even the bishops bound to secrecy were allowed to know about it.

Now the whole question has been examined in some detail by Nicholas Cafardi, writing in the excellent American magazine Commonweal. The conclusion he comes to is that the policy on secrecy really was so secret that the bishops did not realise it applied. Of course, the secrecy enjoined covered the covered the church's internal tribunals, not the crimes themselves. Where those were not reported, as usually they weren't, this was down to misguided and wicked institutional loyalty rather than formal policy.

But there was one more element to this, which was that the 1983 revision of Canon Law (the same one that provides that it's permissible for a priest to absolve someone with whom he has had sex, providing he doesn't recognise them) provided a statute of limitations of five years for all sexual offences which were not to be dealt with by the CDF. Since no one knew that child abuse was to be dealt with by the CDF, because the document saying that the tribunals must be secret was itself so well-hidden, the American Catholic hierarchy, at the time when the scandals were at their height in the late 80s , supposed they were bound by a five-year statute of limitations. More to the point, says Cafardi, the CDF itself didn't know it had this power under Ratzinger, until 2001. Then it announced that it had had it all along – this was the moment when Ratzinger decided he must extirpate child abuse from the church.

"From what can be deduced from published reports, there seems to have been a power struggle going on between Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy and  Ratzinger at the CDF over which congregation had competency in the matter of clergy who had sexually abused minors. Add to that brew Castrillon Hoyos's well-known praise of a bishop who shielded an abusive priest; Ratzinger's belief that such men were a disgrace to the priesthood; the fact that that Castrillon's congregation was inclined to go light on accused priests while the CDF was much more a dispenser of justice. Then add an elderly pope who had to choose between the two.

Ratzinger and CDF won that battle, but the Vatican could not be so indiscreet as to announce this to the world, at least not under the rules of bureaucratic bella figura. So when the decision was made and Ratzinger got the ball, Rome didn't want to embarrass Castrillon. Therefore they simply said … CDF always had this competency. Don't you remember Crimen?

So the 2001 reordering of the law by Pope John Paul II in Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela really did give jurisdiction back to CDF. But instead of clearly saying so, the Vatican evidently thought it more important to maintain the bureaucratic illusion that nothing had changed. And that has caused added confusion.

"Added confusion" seems to me a remarkable understatement. But this is an account of the matter which makes a lot of sense. It requires no more than normal vanity, bureaucratic ass-covering, and indifference to other people's suffering. That's all that needed for evil to have a very good run. You don't need the superhuman malevolence which some people attribute to the Vatican – even though we'll hear a lot about that in the run up to the visit of the Pope.

Posted by Andrew Brown Thursday 22 July 2010 15.11 BST