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
So what is going on here?
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
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
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”.
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
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
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!
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 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
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
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?