Crimen Sollicitationis

Minor Heresies
June 22, 2008

By now, the concept of a pedophile priest is not surprising. Articles about complaints, prosecutions and lawsuits related to priestly sexual misconduct appear in the news media every week. Back in 2006, the British television news program Panorama broadcast a special program on the way the Catholic Church handled abusive priests, a program that resulted in the resignation of an Irish Bishop. They provided a copy of a secret church document, the Crimen Sollicitationis (Crime of Solicitation), which outlined Vatican policy on dealing with priests who commit sexual crimes. The document, written and distributed in 1962, was updated in 2001 by none other than Cardinal Thomas Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. (If you can handle the Latin, here's the now-public update, I believe) The document lays out an entire formalized judicial process for prosecuting priests who solicited and/or engaged in sexual acts. The penalties are entirely canonical, ranging from a rebuke to removal from office. This document is significant, not only in how it defines the relationships within the church, but also between church and state. (There is evidence of a previous version of the document from 1922, "De modo procedendi in causis sollicitationis.")

The first significant thing about the Crimen Sollicitationis is that it was necessary. Some decades ago the church realized that it had enough of a sexual misconduct problem on its hands to warrant special instructions. In section 5 of the text it states that the local authority (Bishop, abbot, or prelate) may delegate these cases, but "they may not commit these cases on an habitual basis, or for the entire group of these cases…". This is not the only reference in the text to a "series of cases." It seems that they were numerous enough to be a time management problem for church administrators. Some of these cases were, no doubt, priests getting some consensual action with parishioners. Some, as we have seen in the news, involved rape or molestation.

The second significant thing about the document is its emphasis on secrecy. By secrecy I mean not only the usual protection of privacy appropriate to an allegation of sexual misconduct, but also a secrecy that restricts the prosecution of the matter to the Catholic church itself. The opening instruction states: "This text is to be diligently stored in the secret archives of the Curia as strictly confidential. Nor is it to be published or added to with any commentaries." The very existence of a church policy on sexual misconduct by priests was to be secret.

Sections 11 through 13 address the secrecy of the process and the oath of secrecy to be taken by all involved, including the accuser(s) and witnesses. These matters are termed a "secret of the Holy Office, in all matters and with all persons, under penalty of excommunication latae sententiae, ipso facto, and without any declaration of such a penalty having been incurred…" Translating the Latin, this means that anyone who breaks the silence is booted out of the church at that moment, without any due process, and (by Catholic standards) will roast in hell for all eternity. The text makes it clear in Section 23, covering the questioning of the accuser, "And before he is dismissed, there should be presented to him, as above, an oath of observing the secret, threatening him, if there is a need, with an excommunication reserved to the Ordinary or to the Holy See."

The oath itself is set down in an appendix to the instructions. After mentioning excommunication, it continues, "Further, I shall observe this secret absolutely and in every way with all who have no legitimate part in the treatment of this same matter, or, who are not constricted by the same sworn bond; nor will I ever, directly or indirectly, by means of a nod, or a word, by writing or in any other way and under whatever type of pretext, even for the most urgent and most serious cause, even for the purpose of a greater good, commit anything against this fidelity to the secret, unless a particular faculty or dispensation has been expressly given to me by the Supreme Pontiff."

The glaring omission in this 39 page document is any admonition to cooperate with the police in cases where there is reasonable cause to think that a sex crime has been committed. There are no instructions on how to coordinate internal disciplinary measures with the civil authorities. This is not a situation where a particular bishop can take the fall for failing to report cases of rape or molestation to the police. The Crimen Sollicitationis requires that the local church authorities report all cases to the Holy See.

In 2002, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops issued the Revised Essential Norms, a document outlining new church policy on cases of alleged sexual abuse by priests or other church employees. This policy was revised in 2005. This time they got it right, but 40 years too late. Perhaps 1,500 years too late? The Catholic Church has had a long history of wielding temporal power through theological means and justification. The mindset of being above civil law has to be a tough thing to discard.

An illustrative side note: Before the advent of public education just about the only literate people around were clergy, and literacy itself was both rare and valuable. Hence the legal concept of "benefit of clergy." Well into the 17th century someone convicted of a capital crime could escape the noose by reading from the Bible, proving his literacy. The convict would generally suffer some punishment, such as branding, but for centuries it meant that a monk or priest could literally get away with murder.

In an essay on FindLaw, law professor Marci Hamilton makes a convincing case for going after the Catholic Church using the federal RICO statute (Racketeering-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations). She proposes that in the same way the RICO statute has been used against labor unions gone corrupt through the influence of criminals, so too the statute could be used to bring accountability to the church.

In fact, back in 2005 Philip Hower settled a RICO case against the Catholic Church. According to Hower's attorney, Ivan Abrams, this was the first RICO case against the church to make it through the judicial process intact. Hower was a seminarian who blew the whistle on sexually abusive priests and was denied ordination as a result.

The trial of the Catholic Church continues, mostly in civil court, all over this country and around the world. This is good, but it is not enough. There is plenty of evidence from successful civil suits that church employees throughout the hierarchy engaged in an ongoing conspiracy to obstruct justice. The federal government needs to reassert the rule of law over the rule of theocrats and subject the church to accountability. The Department of Justice should open a comprehensive criminal investigation of the Catholic Church's cover-ups of sex crimes.


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