“A step comparable to a parent who denounces his or her own child”: A different perspective

Pastor Mark made the following comment on the post below:

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.

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10 responses to ““A step comparable to a parent who denounces his or her own child”: A different perspective

  1. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    Wow. Guess if I’m a victim of clerical sexual abuse I’d better get it to-gether and speak up before I’m 28, otherwise my only hope is one of the RCC’s famous exceptions it allows itself. Incredible.

    • I think you would have read above that the Monsignor expressed his dissatisfaction with this rule and his desire that they go back to the old rule which had no limits. And I think too that he made it fairly clear that this limit is regularly waived.

    • David Kennedy

      Your comment would carry more weight, Terry, if statutes of limitations didn’t exist in many secular legal contexts as well. They are there for a good reason, to prevent courts from entertaining accusations where evidence is either stale or has disappeared. In other words, they exist in the interests of justice.

      There is no reason why, in principle, they shouldn’t apply to canon law cases as well. Though ten years seems a bit short to me, particularly for cases which occurred back in the days when these victims had little recourse.

  2. Chris S

    “In some countries…bishops…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.”

    A problem I have with this line of thinking is that is not a bishop also a spiritual father to the laity in his diocese – as well as being a spiritual father to his priests. Therefore, does not a bishop have a paternal obligation to the victims in these cases.

    • David Kennedy

      I’m not sure what “line of thinking” you’re talking about. He didn’t say there was any obligation on bishops not to report these things; he said it was a “grave matter”. And so it is. Ask any workmate, supervisor or parent who has had to report a colleague or child.

      • Chris S

        It seems to me Monsignor Charles was implying that, unless the secular law mandated otherwise, bishops should not report priests to the police if they become aware the priest is committing offences.

        Obviously it could be a personally difficult and challenging thing for a bishop to report one of his priests. However, the bishop also has a strong obligation to the laity in his diocese which is comparable to the obligations he has to his priests.

        Basicly, what concerned me about Monsignor Charle’s views was that he appeared to believe the bishops chief responsibility was to look after his priests when in fact the bishop should also care for the laity in his diocese.

  3. Tony

    The pattern seems to repeat itself time and time again. When you hear people who speak on behalf of the Vatican you get stories of ‘plausible deniabilty’ pointing to this law or that law.

    The line is ‘a few bad apples’ at first. Then it keeps on happening and we now have the beginnings of accepting that some bishops need a tap on the wrist.

    But that’s where it stops.

    The thing that disappoints me about this stuff is the ‘Vatican wall’ where it’s everyone else who stuffed up but the Vatican either stays silent or points to the ‘laws’ that should have been followed.

    Benedict’s Irish letter was all about ‘them’; there was no ‘us’. He’s left his former VG out to dry, taking responsibility for what went wrong in Munich. But he (+Ratzinger) was in charge. He needs to at least say, personally (not through professional spinners) , I could have done better.

    More generally, the experience of those working with real cases seems to be in stark contrast to that represented by the likes of Mons Scicluna. Dr Michelle Mulvihill is a local example and, writing for The Drum she says:

    Is it not time for Pope Benedict XVI himself to acknowledge his share of responsibility, instead of projecting it onto others and complaining about a campaign against his person?

    From the beginning the sexual abuse crisis has been an interlocking set of problems: the abuse committed by some priests and religious, and the administrative failures of some Bishops who should have known how to deal with this problem better.

    The kind of cerebral gymnastics about the seal of the confessional is interesting too, but many bishops and priests knew about abuse outside that context and still did nothing or, worse, moved perpetrators on.

    I’ve no reason to doubt the integrity of the likes of Mons Scicluna, but it’s hard not to conclude that the walls of the Vatican shield them from reality.

  4. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    I don’t think your point will get very far here Tony, because these guys don’t see a Vatican wall but Christ. And before the usual ad nominem gets applied to me, I agree with your points, and would agree just as much were it officials in my church too.

  5. I’m glad you posted this David, because the Monsignor’s remarks confirm what a red herring the “seal of the confessional” defence of not reporting sexual abuse is. He directly mentions one of the “ways and means” of reporting which I had in mind when I made my comment.

    However, it does lead to the question, if what the Monsignor outlines was in fact the Vatican’s preferred practice in these cases, why does it seem that these procedures were followed so little in actuality?

    One is left to assume that protecting the good name of the institution of the church was placed at a higher premium than providing justice and subsequent healing for the victims – and let’s not forget just who the victims were in these cases, the children, not the church, the priests or the Pope.

    A further question that remains unanswered by the Monsignor (perhaps because the interviewer didn’t ask it) is why the “firm and unequivocal” punishment for such cases outlined in canon law – which I take to be a revokation of the license to function as a priest; a fairly light punishment most would say – was in fact apparently so infrequently applied? Why were priests who _were_ found guilty of these heinous crimes against minors by the church’s own investigations system subsequently transferred between parishes and dioceses, and in some cases countries, without the recipients of their ministry being informed of their past? This type of secrecy, David, has little to do with protecting the innocent and a lot to do with covering-up damaging truths. The most recent and now justly infamous case being, of course, Fr Hullermann, the paedophile priest whose predilections were first uncovered in Archbishop Ratzinger’s diocese of Munich 30 years ago, but whose current parishioners at Bad Tolz were only informed of his past this weekend. It is precisely at this juncture that the church hierarchy responsible for these decisions becomes complicit in any crimes that were subsequently committed by such priests, is it not?