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Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Breaching The Vatican Wall Of Secrecy

Crimen Sollicitaitonis And Priestly Sex Crime: Breaching The Vatican Wall Of Secrecy
Dr Clive Gillis

The BBC’s Panorama programme Sex Crimes and the Vatican, transmitted on Sunday 1st October, was shocking.  But was there anything new?

Archbishop Vincent Nichol is chairman of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults. The immediate internet posting of his protest and the press saturation on Monday suggested that there had been prior warning of the programme. The Vatican, having refused input, was denied a preview showing. Nevertheless, according to the Telegraph, a leaked copy was sent the previous week to the Bishops on retreat in Spain.

Nichol confirmed the present writer’s feeling that little was new, stating that the programme used old footage and undated interviews.

So what is going on here?

Two strands

Nichol sees two strands in the BBC attack. With regard to neglecting to act over paedophilia he said the Church is working ceaselessly in the protection of children and cooperating fully and immediately with public authorities. No doubt he had in mind the fact that in 2001 Lord Nolan, of standards in public life fame, was invited to report on child protection in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Nolan’s final report contained 83 recommendations including a national Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA) to advise on child protection matters.  But COPCA only covers the UK and does not answer Panorama’s allegation that “in some countries the Catholic church has little or no child protection procedures”.

The second strand

Nichol continued, “The second strand of the programme is an attack on the Vatican and specifically on Pope Benedict XV”.  He said, “it is false because it misrepresents two Vatican documents ... [in order to] connect the horrors of child abuse to the person of the Pope.”

Nichol maintains that the first of these two documents (Crimen sollicitationis), issued in 1962, is not directly concerned with child abuse at all, but with the misuse of the confessional. We shall see.

Nichol said the second document (Sacramentorum Sanctitafs Tutela), issued in 2001, “ensured that the Vatican is informed of every case of child abuse and that each case is dealt with properly.  This document does not hinder the investigation by civil authorities of allegations of child abuse, nor is it a method of cover‑up, as the programme persistently claims”.  But again, as we shall see, it is not quite as simple as that.

The Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Murphy‑0’Connor has now written to the BBC Director General Mark Thompson claiming “enormous distress and alarm” among Catholics.

Rome and the United Nations

The Vatican has permanent observer status at the United Nations.  On the 20th April 1990 the Holy See was one of the first of the 191 signatories to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Unfortunately the American paedophile priest scandal peaked just as a UN Special Session on Children in New York was taking place May 8‑12, 2002.  Rome, a highly reputable delegate, was emerging as a major transgressor of Article 14 of the convention “to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse”.

The protest group, ‘Catholics For a Free Choice’, complained that the Holy See must be, “held accountable as a full member of some agencies and full scale participant at major UN Conferences with the right to ratify or accede to international treaties and to submit reservations to documents”.  They were exasperated by Rome’s ambiguous observer status allowing her to participate only, “when it suits its purposes,” and relieving her of the, “full accountability expected of member states”.

They produced reports entitled, “The Holy See and the Convention on the Rights of Children,” tailor made for each country comparing the laws of each land with Rome’s Canon Law.  It made a salutary presentation.


These reports drew attention to what was then a new Vatican Canon Law Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela ‑ The Safeguarding of the Sacrament, which we have already referred to.  It was not secret but the Latin was obscure and the media failed to spot it until American abuse attorneys sought to indict it as a means of Vatican cover up during 2003 trials.

Sacramentorum insisted that only Rome’s Inquisition could handle these offenders.  It lumped together such things as profaning the sacrament and revealing the secrets of the confessional with moral outrages such as paedophilia.  Up to this time Bishops or Superiors of orders could deal themselves with offenders in Canon Law with the legal option to simply suppress scandal and secretly move on the accused priest elsewhere.  But now as we have said, they must see to it that, “the Vatican is informed of every case of child abuse and that each case is dealt with properly”.

De Delectis

Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Pope, produced a confirmatory decree from the Inquisition over which he presided.  It was named, De Delectis Gravioribus, Concerning Grave Offences.  Violation of the secrecy of the confessional or profaning the wafer was again dealt with by the same Canon Law as paedophilia.  Following a hearing behind the Inquisition’s tightly shut doors, all forwarded evidence had to be kept confidential for “10 years past the alleged victim’s 18th birthday”.  Rome had in effect dropped shutters upon the outside world interfering in her affairs.

Article 25  (1) of the document states “Cases of this nature are subject to the Pontifical secret” and Article 25 (2) “Whoever has violated the secret ... is to be punished with an appropriate penalty”.  Both Sacramentorum and De Delectis acknowl­edge the continuing currency of Paul VI’s 4th February 1974 ten point overarching se­crecy decree affecting every branch of Vati­  can activity Secreta Continere.

Secreta requires those involved with matters covered by the Pontifical secret to swear “touching with my hand the sac­rosanct Gospel of God, (that) I promise to faithfully guard the pontifical secret”.  The rider “I am conscious that the transgres­sor of such secret commits a   serious sin”, contains the veiled threat of excommunication.

Does this mean the Vatican has a legal right to ride roughshod over the laws of states?  No it does not.  Nichol’s statement that Sacramentorum and De Delectis, “does not hinder the investigation by civil authorities of allegations of child abuse, nor is it a method of cover‑up, as the programme persistently claims,” is carefully considered and technically correct.


Nichol is also dismissive of the allegation that Rome hid its abuse behind the other document we have mentioned, Crimen sollicitationis, featured by Panorama, but first given wide publicity during the American abuse trials of several years ago.  He claims, that it “is not directly concerned with child abuse at all, but with the misuse of the confessional”.  But it does also encompass “the worst crime”, Rome’s traditional euphemism for sodomy.  Crimen makes the Inquisition responsible for punishing “obscene external deeds, gravely sinful, perpetrated ...by a cleric with a person of his own sex ....or attempted by him with youths of either sex...”.

As soon as the American lawyers tried to use it as evidence of Vatican cover up in the 2003 abuse trials Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts immediately moved the goal posts.  He told the press that the Vatican’s 1962 norms (Crimen) for handling cases of priests accused of soliciting sex in the confessional have been superseded by the 1983 Code of Canon Law and new 2001 norms (Sacramentorum /De Delectis ). “When a matter is re‑ordered, the previous procedures are suspended,” he declared.

As far as I can see the only printed official denial that Crimen is still operable is a Vatican link to Harranz’s press statement!

A canon lawyer’s verdict

Sacramentorum and De Delectis have been the operative legislation since 2001 and rusty Latin skills and failure adequately to watch what is going on in the Vatican do not make it “secret”, which it was not.

But Crimen was secret and must have contributed to a culture of near paranoid total cover up for 40 years previously and must have shaped attitudes throughout the world during this period when so much of the abuse, now the subject of court action, took place.

In an ongoing blog, currently commenting upon the Panorama programme under the header “Does the BBC enjoy being so far behind the fact curve?” a confident top canon lawyer ponders over his put down of the Observer newspaper a year ago for reporting practically the same story.  He points out that the provisions for secrecy of canon law are enacted for perfectly good reasons concerning Rome’s internal workings which he enumerates.  He is confidant from a position of great learning to insist nothing whatsoever in the letter from the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith (Sacramentum/De Delectis) legally “prevents or discourages victims (or their parents) from going to the police, private attorneys, or even the press with their stories”.

So why this great tide of human misery?

The truth

The truth was well if not forcibly enough put by top RC reporter John Allen, that, “confidentiality, ... must be distinguished from a widespread mentality that sought to protect the church from scandal by not reporting sexual abuse by priests to the police.  As a matter of canon law, the obligation of secrecy in canonical cases does not prohibit a bishop or other church officials from reporting crimes to the proper authorities. Conflicts may arise, however, if civil authorities seek access to the secret acts of canonical procedures,” ‑ Conflicts in which Rome always has the upper hand using a culture of silence, procrastination and bureaucratic obstruction over not just years but decades.

Of course Rome is guilty of presiding over the torment of countless numbers of abused children in many ways but getting objective proof of such a mindset of total secrecy in the face of stony silence is almost impossible.

Media have made assess of themselves

But Rome knows jolly well that she is technically right and the BBC and the press are wrong and worse – have made asses of themselves.  If Nichol knows he will prevail when it comes to hard facts, why such “incandescence” now?

Well, Rome has been concerned for some time that her traditional grip on the BBC has been weakening.  Rome was furious over the BBC’s handling of Benedict’s Islam blunder.  In 2003 Nichol demanded and got several meetings with BBC director of news, Richard Sambrook, over the content and timing of three programmes he objected to, Kenyon Confronts about child abuse in the church, another Panorama programme Sex and the Holy City; and the BBC3 animated series Popetown, and he did manage to negotiate changes.

Surely Rome would not now lose an opportunity to seize the high ground, that she can probably hold, to screw fresh concessions from the BBC on the backs of abused children – would she?

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