Thursday, July 22, 2010

The secret secret of the Vatican

The secret secret of the Vatican
The Vatican's policy on paedophile priests was so secret that not even the bishops knew about it
Was there a centrally organised cover up of child abuse within the Catholic church? This is one of the main charges against the institution. I don't believe it myself; I think there were disorganised and decentralised efforts to conceal scandal, just as there are in almost any organisation which discovers paedophiles working for it, from Islington Council to the United Nations. It doesn't excuse the efforts that were made, but it doesn't suggest, either, that the Vatican is a uniquely wicked institution.

The main charge against the church in this context is that there was a document – itself secret – which bound bishops to secrecy when dealing with cases of child abuse. It seems clear that very few people knew of the document in question (Crimen Sollicitationis), which dated from 1922. This states that it is the CDF (the Vatican department that enforces orthodoxy) which must deal with the use of the confessional for sexual exploitation and with the abuse of pre-adolescent children, which is described in the document as crimen pessimum, the worst of all crimes.

But the document was never properly issued. Like the planning application to demolish the earth in Hitchikers' Guide to the Galaxy, it never reached most of the bishops who needed to know of it. It was not, for example, reprinted for all the bishops at the Second Vatican Conference. One might think that there was not much use in having a policy of secrecy so secret that not even the bishops bound to secrecy were allowed to know about it.

Now the whole question has been examined in some detail by Nicholas Cafardi, writing in the excellent American magazine Commonweal. The conclusion he comes to is that the policy on secrecy really was so secret that the bishops did not realise it applied. Of course, the secrecy enjoined covered the covered the church's internal tribunals, not the crimes themselves. Where those were not reported, as usually they weren't, this was down to misguided and wicked institutional loyalty rather than formal policy.

But there was one more element to this, which was that the 1983 revision of Canon Law (the same one that provides that it's permissible for a priest to absolve someone with whom he has had sex, providing he doesn't recognise them) provided a statute of limitations of five years for all sexual offences which were not to be dealt with by the CDF. Since no one knew that child abuse was to be dealt with by the CDF, because the document saying that the tribunals must be secret was itself so well-hidden, the American Catholic hierarchy, at the time when the scandals were at their height in the late 80s , supposed they were bound by a five-year statute of limitations. More to the point, says Cafardi, the CDF itself didn't know it had this power under Ratzinger, until 2001. Then it announced that it had had it all along – this was the moment when Ratzinger decided he must extirpate child abuse from the church.

"From what can be deduced from published reports, there seems to have been a power struggle going on between Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy and Ratzinger at the CDF over which congregation had competency in the matter of clergy who had sexually abused minors. Add to that brew Castrillon Hoyos's well-known praise of a bishop who shielded an abusive priest; Ratzinger's belief that such men were a disgrace to the priesthood; the fact that that Castrillon's congregation was inclined to go light on accused priests while the CDF was much more a dispenser of justice. Then add an elderly pope who had to choose between the two.

Ratzinger and CDF won that battle, but the Vatican could not be so indiscreet as to announce this to the world, at least not under the rules of bureaucratic bella figura. So when the decision was made and Ratzinger got the ball, Rome didn't want to embarrass Castrillon. Therefore they simply said … CDF always had this competency. Don't you remember Crimen?

So the 2001 reordering of the law by Pope John Paul II in Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela really did give jurisdiction back to CDF. But instead of clearly saying so, the Vatican evidently thought it more important to maintain the bureaucratic illusion that nothing had changed. And that has caused added confusion.

"Added confusion" seems to me a remarkable understatement. But this is an account of the matter which makes a lot of sense. It requires no more than normal vanity, bureaucratic ass-covering, and indifference to other people's suffering. That's all that needed for evil to have a very good run. You don't need the superhuman malevolence which some people attribute to the Vatican – even though we'll hear a lot about that in the run up to the visit of the Pope.

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