The Vatican's Big Secret

By Peter Shadbolt
The Australian [Australia]
July 23, 2004

THE Vatican has never been ashamed about keeping secrets - after all, its repository of confidential documents is called the Vatican Secret Archive.

Housing almost the entire history of the Western church - with the exception of pre-8th century heretical texts that at some point mysteriously disappeared, Name of the Rose-style - the library has 50km of shelves with more than 35,000 volumes on an incomplete catalogue.

Its name is largely historical and it has been guardedly open to accredited scholars since the 19th century, but there's no browsing in this library. Researchers have to know in advance which document they want to see and even whether it exists at all. Many volumes are simply lost.

But, as secrets tend to do, some come bobbing to the surface like corks.

In August last year, a German-based chaplain with close ties to the Vatican found and leaked a 42-year-old papal instruction to US lawyers who say it is explosive evidence of a Vatican "ratline" to shield accused child abusers.

"This document really shows that nothing has changed," says Tasmanian child abuse campaigner Denise Cripps. It also proves, she says, that there is a strong case for instituting the "zero-tolerance" policies of US dioceses in Australia and mandatory reporting of church abuse.

While there is controversy over how much weight the document still carries, and church leaders say the guidelines have long since been superseded, it outlines a procedure with remarkable similarities to the actions of the Salesian religious order in Australia, mired in allegations it used its global structure to move known sex offender Frank Klep from Australia to Samoa.

Called Crimine Solicitaciones, marked confidential and bearing the seal of Pope John XXIII, its English title reads: "On the manner of proceeding in cases of the crime of solicitation."

Sent to every bishop in the world in 1962, it outlines procedures for dealing with sexual abuse in the church - specifically the crime of using the privacy of the confessional for acts of sex abuse or to solicit sexual favours.

What it commands is the utmost secrecy among those involved, on pain of excommunication, and, lawyers argue, promotes a culture of keeping abuse problems in-house. Alarmingly, the 69-page instruction spells out procedures for shifting accused clerics to new postings.

"There is nothing to prevent superiors themselves, if by chance they have discovered [one of their] subjects delinquent in the administration of the sacrament of Penance ... from being able to ... admonish and correct and, if the case demands it, to remove him from some ministry. They will also be able to transfer him to another [assignment]." It states accusers also are under threat of excommunication if they speak out publicly.

While the document deals mostly with the relationship between the priest and the person taking confession, US lawyers point to a clause they say makes the document applicable in all cases of sex abuse. It reads: "To have the worst crime ... one must do the equivalent of the following: any obscene, external act, gravely sinful, perpetrated in any way by a cleric or attempted by him with youths of either sex or with brute animals (bestiality)."

Following the revelation of the document, Houston lawyer Daniel Shea, to whom the document was leaked, and Boston lawyer Carmen Durso want to launch an action to sue the Vatican, although they believe success is an outside chance.

"The chances really are very slim," Durso says. "Under US law the Vatican is immune from suit and each diocese is its own independent entity. We're looking at the opportunity of suing under European Union law, which guarantees other rights."

They believe the document is still in force and point to a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dated 2001, which states it still is.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, has dismissed the document, saying it has been superseded by guidelines introduced in the 1960s, '70s and in 1983. Canon lawyer John Beal last month told a Dallas court the document is not the searing evidence the lawyers believe it to be, arguing it needs to be read in context.

"While this characterisation of the Vatican document by plaintiffs sounds ominous and provides provocative sound bites, the actual document is much less interesting - and much less titillating," Beal said.

If nothing else, the papal instruction gives an insight into the Vatican's obsession with secrecy and, as critics allege, the fact it looks after its own.

Victims groups in the US were disappointed in May when Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Boston archbishop who resigned in the wake of accusations he covered up a sex abuse scandal, was awarded the title of archpriest of St Mary Major Basilica in Rome, a largely ceremonial post often given to retired clergy. They argue disgraced clergy should not be rewarded with Vatican sinecures.

Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who represented more than 130 alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, says the Vatican is sending a bad message by giving Law a high-profile new job. "He apparently is being transferred to a position that is comfortable and appears to be some sort of reward," Garabedian says.

Salesian cardinal Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras further inflamed victims groups in 2002 by saying that he would prefer to go to jail rather than harm one of his priests. "For me, it would be a tragedy to reduce the role of a pastor to that of a cop," said the cardinal, who is regarded as a contender to succeed Pope John Paul II.

At the same time, the No.2 at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, another of the Curia's inner sanctum, argued in the Italian Catholic journal 30 Giorni that a priest should be able to confide in his bishop without fear of arrest. "The demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offence of pedophilia is unfounded," Bertone says. "If a priest cannot confide in his bishop for fear of being denounced, then it would mean that there is no more liberty of conscience."

Quite apart from the moral consequences of church abuse - the effect on its reputation of a monstrous abuse of trust - there is also one final taboo: the question of money.

This month, the Portland archdiocese in the state of Oregon filed for Chapter11 bankruptcy - which frees an organisation from the threat of creditors' lawsuits while it reorganises - effectively halting an action worth $160million involving 50 molestation charges against one priest. The archdiocese and its insurers have already paid more than $53 million over 50 years to settle more than 130 claims of sexual abuse.

And if that's not financial apocalypse, churches worldwide can only look on in horror at the Anglican Church in Canada, which has had to be bailed out by the Canadian Government after 7000 native Canadians filed suit over decades of abuse suffered in the country's remote residential church and government-run schools. The final bill for those cases has yet to be established.

While the Vatican is one of the most centralised institutions in the world, financially it's fragmented - each diocese is responsible for itself. After out-of-court settlements and "gifts" from the church, the bill for the Catholic Church in Australia also may never be known.

"There are more than 300 entities in the Catholic Church in Australia; you'd have to ask each one," says Sister Angela Ryan of the National Committee for Professional Standards in the Catholic Church.

Peter Shadbolt is The Australian's religious affairs writer.


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