There are ways and means of reporting child abuse to the police without violating the confidentiality of confession. This really is a red herring, given that the Vatican’s own investigations must presumably tread on this territory. I do think that this is a less than satisfactory reponse, given the gravity of these crimes. The cloak of secrecy really needs to be removed entirely if the Roman church is to regain public trust and respect.
There has been a lot of confusion about the so-called “policy of secrecy” in the Catholic Church regarding the offences we are discussing. I thought it would be helpful to include here a few paragraphs from an interview by Italian journalist Gianni Cardinale with Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, the Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. John Allen carries the full interview translated into English.
Monsignor, you have the reputation for being tough, but the Catholic Church is systematically accused of being accommodating with regard to so-called ‘pedophile priests.’
It’s possible that in the past, perhaps due to a misunderstood sense of defending the good name of the institution, some bishops in practice were too indulgent with regard to these very sad cases. I say in practice, because in principle the penalty for this type of crime had always been firm and unequivocal. Just in terms of the past century, it’s enough to recall the now-celebrated instruction Crimen Sollicitationis of 1922 ….
Wasn’t that 1962?
No, the first edition dates to the pontificate of Pius XI. Then under Blessed John XXIII, the Holy Office prepared a new edition for the bishops in the Second Vatican Council [1962-65], but they only made 2,000 copies, which were not enough for distribution, and it was delayed indefinitely. In any case, it’s a matter of procedural norms to follow in the case of solicitation in the confessional and other grave crimes of a sexual nature, such as the sexual abuse of minors …
Norms, however, which recommended secrecy …
A bad English translation of the text made people think that the Holy See had imposed secrecy in order to hide the facts, but it wasn’t like that. Procedural secrecy served to protect the good names of everyone involved, first of all the victims themselves, and then the accused clergy, who have the same right as everyone else to the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. The Church doesn’t like to make a spectacle of justice. The canonical rule on sexual abuse, however, was never understood as a ban on reporting [crimes] to the civil authorities.
That document, however, is periodically invoked in order to accuse the current pope of having been, in his capacity as prefect of the Holy Office, responsible for a policy of cover-up on the part of the Holy See …
That’s a false and slanderous accusation. In this regard, let me point out certain facts. Between 1975 and 1985, I’ve found that no report of cases of pedophilia involving clergy arrived to the attention of our congregation. However, after the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, there was a period of uncertainty about the list of delicta graviora reserved to the competence of this dicastery. Only with the motu proprio of 2001 was the crime of pedophilia returned to our exclusive responsibility. From that moment, Cardinal Ratzinger demonstrated wisdom and firmness in handling these cases. What’s more, he also showed great courage in taking up some cases which were extremely difficult and delicate, sine acceptione personarum (without special treatment for anyone). Therefore, to accuse the current pope of a cover-up is, I repeat, false and slanderous.
…A frequent accusation directed at the ecclesiastical hierarchy is that of not denouncing the crimes of pedophilia of which they were aware to the civil authorities.
In some countries with an Anglo-Saxon legal culture, but also in France, the bishops – if they become aware of crimes committed by their priests outside of the seal of the sacrament of confession – are required to report them to the civil authorities. That’s a very grave matter, because these bishops are being forced to take a step comparable to a parent who denounces his or her own child. That notwithstanding, our position in these cases is to respect the law.
What about situations in which bishops aren’t legally required to do it?
In these cases, we do not impose an obligation on bishops to denounce their own priests, but we encourage them to contact the victims to invite them to report the priests who victimized them. Beyond that, we invite them to give every kind of spiritual assistance, and not just spiritual, to these victims. In a recent case regarding a priest condemned by an Italian court, it was precisely this congregation that suggested to the accusers, who came to us for a canonical process, to also take it to the civil authorities, in the interests of the victims and also to avoid further crimes.
Final question: Is lifting the statue of limitations [the canonical term is “prescription”] for the delicta graviora anticipated?
You’re touching a sensitive point, in my opinion. In the past, meaning prior to 1898, a statute of limitations for penal action was not part of canon law. For the most serious crimes, it was only with the motu proprio of 2001 that a ten-year prescription was introduced. On the basis of these norms, in cases of sexual abuse the ten-year period begins to run on the day the minor turns eighteen.
Is that enough?
Experience indicates that the term of ten years isn’t adequate for these kinds of cases, and one would hope for a return to the previous system of no prescription for the delicta graviora. On November 7, 2002, however, the Servant of God John Paul II gave this dicastery the faculty to derogate prescription on a case-by-case basis in response to requests from individual bishops. That derogation is normally granted.