Bishop Accountability
  Explaining Crimen Sollicitationis

From "Explaining Crimen Sollicitationis; South African nuns receive apology for mistreatment; Catholic diplomacy in Liberia; Intercommunion dispute in Germany; Cloning"

By John L. Allen Jr.
The World from Rome
National Catholic Reporter
August 15, 2003

Generally speaking, I think I do okay in the rough-and-tumble format of live TV. Every now and then, however, I wish I could have a “do-over” after a particular segment.

Last week brought a couple of examples.

The big story last week was a 1962 Vatican document dealing with the canonical crime of “solicitation,” meaning a priest abusing the confessional to proposition someone sexually. Titled Crimen Sollicitationis, it imposed secrecy on canonical investigations of these cases and other sexual misconduct by a priest. My story can be found here: 1962 document orders secrecy in sex cases.

I spoke with several top canon lawyers, who told me the document was being taken out of context. Its obscurity meant it had not had the impact being attributed to it, and in any event, it dealt only with canonical procedures. It did not order anyone not to cooperate with civil or criminal investigations.

While a culture of secrecy pervaded these matters in the Catholic Church, this document is not the reason why. As a reporter, it was my job to explain that.

Doing so meant challenging the early take on Crimen Sollicitationis in the press. Given widespread cynicism about the church resulting from the sex abuse scandals, it’s hardly surprising that many people initially believed the document was what a couple of civil lawyers said it was: a “smoking gun” proving a conspiracy. That’s how CBS led its coverage on Aug. 6: “For decades, priests in this country have abused children in parish after parish while their superiors covered it all up. Now it turns out the orders for this cover-up were written in Rome at the highest levels of the Vatican.”

On Aug. 7, I appeared on CNN’s Paula Zahn show with William Donohue of the Catholic League, a group dedicated to fighting anti-Catholicism. Donohue attacked CBS. “This is worse than anything that the New York Times did with Jayson Blair … CBS is guilty of defaming the Catholic Church,” Donohue said. (Jayson Blair was the Times reporter who was caught fabricating sources and plagiarizing stories.)

Since I didn’t have the chance to comment on that assessment, viewers may have had the impression I agreed.

Donohue certainly had a point that the CBS report was over-hyped and misleading. I suspect, however, this was the result of confusion and adrenaline rather than ill will. From the beginning, it’s been difficult to explain to non-Catholics the distinction between canon law and civil law, and that when the church imposes secrecy in canonical proceedings, that’s meant to be in addition to, not instead of, cooperation with civil and criminal investigations. That a correspondent who’s not been carefully following the story tripped over this point does not, at least prima facie, prove that CBS was guilty of defamation or deception.

The next night, Aug. 8, I was on Wolf Blitzer’s show with Paul Steidler of SNAP, the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests. Steidler argued, among other points, that the document is “very hostile in tone toward victims.”

I pointed out that canon lawyers believe there is good reason for secrecy in sex abuse cases. It allows witnesses to speak freely, accused priests to protect their good name until guilt is established, and victims to come forward who don’t want publicity. Such secrecy is also not unique to sex abuse. It applies, for example, to the appointment of bishops.

That comment might have led viewers to think that I was minimizing Steidler’s point.

In fact, like most everyone else covering this story, I have been dumbfounded by the insensitivity to victims that church officials have sometimes demonstrated, and secrecy has been part of that pattern. The recent report by the Massachusetts attorney general, for example, highlights the appearance of Bishop Robert Banks before a sentencing hearing in 1984 on behalf of Fr. Eugene O’Sullivan, convicted of sexually assaulting a minor. Banks successfully argued against incarceration, even though he had knowledge of other victims of O’Sullivan that he withheld from the court. Similarly, Bishop (now Archbishop of New Orleans) Alfred Hughes in 1992 rallied to the defense of Fr. John Hanlon, indicted for sex abuse charges, even though Hughes knew of more recent allegations that he did not reveal.

Given such behavior, it’s easy to see why Steidler is sensitive to the language about victims in Crimen Sollicitationis, and why critics say its emphasis on secrecy illustrates a dangerous mentality, even if it’s not proof of a criminal conspiracy.

That’s a balance I wish I had struck on the air.

* * *

One final reflection on Crimen Sollicitationis.

As the story was unfolding, I received a couple of comments from church officials here and in the United States along the lines of, “thank you for setting the record straight.” They were reacting to the fact that early coverage was overwhelmingly negative. Church spokespersons, who knew the document was no “smoking gun,” were frustrated that they couldn’t get that message across.

If my reporting helped restore some perspective, I’m glad. But I don’t think church officials should take any comfort from the pattern this story revealed.

I suspect that the Crimen Sollicitationis episode may signal a new season for how the Catholic Church is covered by the American press. Just as Watergate changed the way the Americans perceived the government, the sexual abuse crisis may have reconfigured attitudes towards the church. All sorts of conspiracy theories and suggestions of corruption that once would have been dismissed by the mainstream press may now be given attention, and swallowed much more easily by the public. It will be increasingly difficult for church spokespersons to refute even obviously bogus stories, not because the spokespersons are wrong, but because few people are disposed to believe them.

This is not a matter of anti-Catholicism, meaning the malice with which some segments of American society have always approached the Catholic Church. This is a new phenomenon — a tendency of even fair-minded people to believe the worst interpretation of any story involving the church.

Of course, this is terribly unfair. In the case of Crimen Sollicitationis, CBS should have checked with canon lawyers before rushing on the air with a report that created an inaccurate impression. But the church has to some extent brought this on itself: its record of concealment, stonewalling and denial has created a climate in which hasty and one-sided reports are going to find traction.

What is needed now is a communications strategy for the Catholic Church in the United States that goes beyond waiting for the next story to blow up, and then blaming the press for its incomprehension. The American church desperately needs to go on the offensive, opening itself up, telling its story, and reestablishing trust with the press and the public. If not, a whole generation of reporters may come of age thinking of the Catholic Church as its Nixon White House, the great white whale of investigative journalism.

In fact, there is a terrific story to be told about American Catholicism, but for now it is being suffocated. Time will tell if the bishops are capable of the leap of imagination necessary to let it see the light of day.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.