Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sexual Abuse in Roman Catholic Clerical Practice and Policy

John Bugay, speaking of the pattern of the cover-up given by Bishops (acting in lockstep), said “In the Roman Catholic Church, it was not just a ‘cultural norm’ but written policy.” Evidently, however, the cultural norms created the need for the written policies, which also brought an adaptation of the culture to accommodate the written policies.

Philip Jude asked, “Which of the documents do you refer to, and in what way do they constitute a written policy of covering up sexual abuse? If you point one written prior to the last few decades, you only prove my point: institutional transparency regarding sexual offenses and our society's understanding of predatory behavior are recent innovations.”

Well, then, we agree. Here is a bit about Rome’s “policy of secrecy” being not simply cultural, but official, written, and well-documented policy:  

1. Confession of sins to a priest in a private, totally confidential setting has been the norm in the Catholic Church since the fifth century and possibly earlier.  It replaced the public confession of sins which had been common in the earliest Christian communities.  In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council required Catholics to confess their sins at least once a year.  With the advent of the private confession of sins came the abuse known as solicitation for sex in the act of sacramental confession.  Unscrupulous priests began to use the intimacy of confession as an opportunity to seduce the penitent into some form of sexual contact.  This abuse is particularly heinous because it takes advantage of a person when he or she is most vulnerable and susceptible to the abuse of priestly power. It is not known when the very first reports of solicitation became known, but by the 16th century the Church had begun to pass legislation to control and eradicate this vile form of abuse.

2. The Popes and various regional bishops issued a series of disciplinary laws against solicitation, beginning in 1561 and extending to 2001.  Papal laws were promulgated in 1561, 1622, 1741, 1869, 1917, 1922, 1962, 1983 and 2001.  In addition to the legislation itself, the church courts prosecuted individual cases in great numbers.  The most complete records have been found in the Spanish and Mexican tribunals and reveal a shockingly high volume of complaints from women and men, accusing priests of solicitation and sexual abuse in a variety of forms.

3. The first Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1917.  Solicitation was listed as a canonical crime (c. 2368).  The canon mentions several penalties including possible dismissal from the clerical state.  The second paragraph imposes on the person solicited a grave obligation of reporting or “denouncing” the priest.  Failure to do so within one month resulted in an automatic penalty of excommunication.  Thus, the one soliciting can be removed from the clerical state and consequently from the active priesthood but the victim or penitent faces an even more severe penalty which is exclusion from the Church itself.  The new Code contained as an appendix the apostolic constitution Sacramentum poenitentiae, issued by Pope Benedict XIV on June 1, 1741.  This was the most solemn pronouncement against solicitation issued to that time as well as the most complete treatment of the nature of solicitation as a crime.

4. The Congregation of the Holy Office issued a decree in the form of an instruction on June 9, 1922.  The decree was signed by Cardinal Merry del Val and issued under the authority and with the explicit approval of Pope Pius XI.  The formal name was “On the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation.” The instruction was essentially a set of procedures to be followed by bishops for the investigation and prosecution of priests accused of solicitation.  These procedures replaced the penal procedures contained in the Code of Canon Law.

5. There are several aspects of this decree which are of particular importance.  They will be listed here and covered in greater detail later in this paper:

a. The document was sent to every bishop in the world

b. Absolute secrecy was imposed on the document itself.

c. Three other sexual crimes committed by clerics were also to be investigated and prosecuted according to the norms of the instruction:  same sex relations, sexual abuse of minors and bestiality.

d. The highest degree of secrecy, the Secret of the Holy Office, was imposed on everyone involved in the process from the time it started.  Violation meant immediate excommunication.

6. The 1922 instruction was replaced by a similar document, commonly referred to by its Latin title, Crimen Sollicitationis. It was issued by the Congregation of the Holy Office on March 16, 1962, under the signature of the Prefect, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, and with the approval of Pope John XXIII. This is the normal manner of receiving Papal approval for documents of this nature.  Like its predecessor, it was then sent to all the bishops in the world. The bishops were admonished to maintain strict confidentiality about the document and ordered not to allow it to be reproduced or commented upon.

[This text is] to be diligently stored in the secret archives of the Curia as strictly confidential. Nor is it to be published nor added to with any commentaries.

7. Crimen Sollicitationis remained in effect until 2001 when the Vatican published a new set of procedures for investigating and prosecuting especially grave canonical crimes, including certain sexual crimes committed by the clergy.

Later in the document: 35. On the other hand, there are too many authenticated reports of victims having been seriously intimidated into silence by church authorities to assert that such intimidation is the exception and not the norm.  It is quite possible that most of the bishops who have served during the past thirty years were not aware of the existence of the 1962 document until it was publicly acknowledged by the Vatican in 2001. The cover-up happened whether or not bishops were aware of the 1962 document.  This cover-up was grounded in a culture of secrecy, clericalism and institutional self-preservation.  The 1922 and 1962 documents did not create this culture. They arose out of it and gave canonical legal force to the pattern of secrecy. If the 1922 and 1962 documents have been used as a justification for any cover-up or intimidation then we possibly have what some of the more critical commentators have alleged, namely, the distinct appearance of a blueprint for a cover-up.

The reasons for the seemingly perennial problems of clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up will not be found in Church documents alone.  One must delve deeper than the documents into the very nature of the ecclesial culture.  The documents may be indicators of the official Church’s awareness of sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable persons by the clergy, but these documents surely are not the cause of clergy sexual abuse nor are they the foundation of the official Church’s response to such abuse.  This foundation may influence both official church documents and laws or their interpretation and application.  Nevertheless one must look deeper into the nature of the institutional Church as expressed by the hierarchy.

Of course. Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognize them”. Paul explicitly stated, “the overseer is to be above reproach” … and reminds Timothy, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” How then do we understand this “tree” by what is seen here as a thousand years-worth of this kind of “fruit”? 


  1. " It replaced the public confession of sins which had been common in the earliest Christian communities. "

    The privatization of confession was an act of charity. It was also necessary to avoid scandal and disorder. Do you really think that public confession of sin is feasible in this age? (I mean confession of specific sins, not generic confessions, which is included in every Mass.)

    I have heard that a few radical denominations retain the old custom: it results in public humiliation. Wasn't this a major problem among the Independent Baptist Fundamentalists, or whatever the heck they're called?

    Furthermore, the notion that the sacrament of confession was regularly used to solicit and promote sin is absurd. Did it happen? I'm sure. Just like I'm sure that many Reformed pastors have taken advantage of their authority.

    The fact that the Church was legislating against such abuses as early as the 1500s is proof of her vigilance and commitment to the purity of the Body of Christ.

    You say that a tree is known by its fruit. In this context, you are certainly straining the meaning of that admonition. Every church has such predators in the pews and in the pulpits, and surely every church has covered up these acts, or at least looked the other way.

    The Catholic Church is enormous. Given its size, it will naturally have a greater number of sexual abusers weasel their way into the positions of power. But all the scientific studies prove that sexual abuse by priests and other clergy is no more prevalent than it is among the average male population.

    There are intelligent and reasonable arguments against the claims of the Catholic Church. Why resort to this sort of viciousness and mudslinging?

  2. Philip -- this is not "every church" but the very essence of what the Roman Catholic Church has been for more than 1000 years. Seriously. How can this organization claim to be infallible in its teachings?

    This is neither viciousness or mudslinging. It is a report from a Roman Catholic priest. It is seeking to examine, in a dispassionate way, what precisely is happening that leads to the kind of summaries by genuine investigations in my next post.

    The question is not "how many priests are (or were) abusing children". The question is, what's happening with the cover-up? What's causing the cover-up, the stonewalling, the moving around of priests so they can become predators in new hunting grounds?

    And again, think of the Lord's admonition: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them."

    The enemy is within. I am surprised you don't see this.