U.S. Episcopate's Response to Report About '62 Vatican Document

Media Claims of a «Ground Plan» for Cover-ups Are Assailed

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WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 19, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Responding to media claims that a 1962 document purportedly shows a Church plot to cover up sexual abuse by clerics, the U.S. bishops’ conference issued this statement earlier this month. The statement came from the conference’s Department for Communications.

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«Crimen sollicitationis,» a forty-year-old document of the former Holy Office (now, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), issued March 16, 1962, is being portrayed by some in and outside the media as a «smoking gun» allegedly proving that there was a «ground plan» for «covering up» the crime of sexual abuse of minors by clerics.

The essential point in response to those making this claim is that they are taking the document entirely out of context and therefore distorting it completely.

This document deals primarily with the canonical procedures to be followed when a priest is accused of soliciting in the confessional. Towards the end there is reference also to other crimes which are to be given serious punishment: gravely sinful deeds committed by a cleric with another man and «with youths of either sex or with brute animals.»

The document clearly deals exclusively with ecclesiastical crimes and punishments found in church law. It outlines procedures for addressing ecclesiastical crimes which have already been designated publicly as such in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (see its canons 2359 and 2368). It treats these crimes very seriously and repeats the penalties for them. The penalties include dismissal from the clerical state.

The 1962 document has no bearing on civil law. It does not forbid the civil reporting of civil crimes.

Confidentiality, in the past and today, is often required in court procedures, including civil court procedures, for a variety of reasons — including not unnecessarily impugning a person’s good name, the protection of the young or victims of assault, etc. In addition, the special nature of the crime of solicitation in the confessional (the most confidential forum of all), to which the document is mainly dedicated, has to be taken into account. The allegation of committing this crime is most serious since the accused priest cannot break the «seal of confession» to defend himself. Investigation of confessional matters must be done most delicately to protect the confidentiality of the sacrament of penance and the rights and dignity of both the accused and the accuser.

Perhaps most cited by those claiming a «cover-up plan» is the secrecy imposed on the person alleging to have been solicited. The document is not addressing the civil rights and responsibilities of that person. Instead, it is considering the good order of the Church’s own internal life: the protection of the good names of the persons involved, the sacred nature of the sacrament of penance, the potential for scandalizing the faithful, etc.

To contend that the document is intended to create a «chilling effect» on reporting civil crimes is to attribute to it an intention it simply never had.

The document says nothing about the responsibility that the Church may have within the civil jurisdictions in which it lives and works. Then, as now, the Church is not intending to be exempt from reporting civil crimes to civil authorities.

As a document of the universal Church, it applied in 1962 to a world of quite diverse civil jurisdictions — to a free and democrat North America and Western Europe, a South America dominated by authoritarian dictatorships, an eastern Europe under totalitarian communist rule, etc. To suggest that it was intended as a «ground plan» for handling these matters in the United States (or in any particular jurisdiction) is ludicrous. Also, the applicable civil laws in the United States in 1962 were very different from what they later became.

The Second Vatican Council began later in 1962, and led to the eventual revision of the Code of Canon Law. The 1962 document seemingly had practical effect for only a short while. The process for dealing with ecclesiastical crimes was revised in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, and is found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. This revised Code, which has been operative for the past two decades, treats the sexual abuse of a minor (and solicitation of a penitent by a confessor) as criminal behavior (see its canons 1395 and 1387), which may be punished by dismissal from the clerical state.

The 1983 Code’s procedure for dealing with the sexual abuse of a minor has been addressed (and made more specific) in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, when he underscored the serious nature of this crime and required that it be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In addition, the USCCB’s Essential Norms of 2002 require the establishment of a review board, composed primarily of lay persons, to be involved in handling allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clerics. The Essential Norms also address the reporting of sexual abuse to appropriate civil authorities.

The 1962 document is also being treated as evidence of the fact that the «Church knew there was a problem.» As already indicated, both the 1917 and the 1983 Codes of Canon Law publicly recognized the sexual abuse of minors by clerics as a serious crime which is to be punished with a serious penalty. The gravity of such sexual abuse is based on the Decalogue.

It should be pointed out that news reports are based on what is apparently a forty-year-old English translation whose origin and fidelity to the original have not been determined.

This statement was developed by staff and consultants of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and has been reviewed by the Chairman of the Committee for Canonical Affairs.

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