A Response to Christopher Hitchens' 'The Great Catholic Coverup'


Christopher Hitchens' venomous attack on Pope Benedict XVI is a revelation that deserves wider attention.

To the Editor:

Christopher Hitchens' venomous attack on Pope Benedict XVI ("The Great Catholic Coverup", 18 March, 2010) is a revelation that deserves wider attention. Were it not for its appearance in Slate in the United States and in the National Post in Canada, it would be difficult to believe that a reputable newspaper would publish such absurdity.

Mr. Hitchens states that in May, 2001, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger sent a "confidential" letter to Catholic bishops to remind them that anyone who disclosed "child rape and torture" by priests would be excommunicated. He claims that Cardinal Ratzinger imposed a ten year "statute of limitations" on actions against such priests, and was thus guilty of "obstruction of justice."

These assertions are false.

The 2001 instruction was issued to clarify how reports of clerical sexual misconduct were to be handled. Ratzinger's directive actually facilitated Church proceedings against clerical sex offenders by extending time limits that had previously hampered prosecutions. Limitations of action are not unique to Canon Law. They exist in secular legal jurisdictions, and can prevent prosecution of serious sex crimes.

The so-called "confidential" instruction was published and appeared in English in 2001. It has been 'discovered,' 'revealed' or 'exposed' by so many reporters since then that it might give pause to those who doubt the possibility of the resurrection of the dead. Certainly, Mr. Hitchens' wild fabrication that Cardinal Ratzinger threatened to excommunicate anyone who revealed "child rape and torture" has trumped the rhetoric of his predecessors. However, lurid prose is hardly a substitute for sound research.

Bishops were not "reminded" by Cardinal Ratzinger of secrecy or excommunication. The passage quoted by Mr. Hitchens as 'proof' of his extravagant claim is not (as his readers might believe) from Ratzinger's instruction. It is from Crimen Sollicitationis, a 1962 instruction that Ratzinger merely noted had been under review.

Virtually all of Crimen Sollicitationis concerned the investigation and prosecution of complaints of sexual solicitation of penitents by priests in confession.Such procedures are difficult and sensitive because the seal of confession cannot be violated; a priest cannot break the seal even to defend himself against an accusation. The same policies and procedures were to be adapted and applied to the "worst crimes," including sexual aggression against minors.

Crimen Sollicitationis did not threaten excommunication of people who revealed "child rape and torture" by priests. On the contrary: it imposed not only a duty to denounce such crimes (and the lesser offence of solicitation) to the bishop, but the automatic excommunication of anyone who knowingly failed to do so.

On the contrary: it imposed not only a duty to denounce such crimes (and the lesser offence of solicitation) to the bishop, but the automatic excommunication of anyone who knowingly failed to do so.

Officials investigating or involved in proceedings pertaining to these "unspeakable crimes" were required to take an oath of perpetual secrecy, on pain of excommunication. This was the passage perverted by Mr. Hitchens' selective quotation and extraordinary accusation. An oath of secrecy was also to be given to witnesses in the proceedings, but was not, it seems, to be backed by a threat of excommunication. Analogous oaths of secrecy and confidentiality are taken by secular professionals and officials. Confidentiality is usually maintained during secular investigations, and secular proceedings – Family Court hearings for example – sometimes proceed in secret.

Media reports over the last several years have mentioned some of the reasons the Church had for secrecy: protecting the seal of confession, ensuring the integrity of an investigation, shielding victims from publicity and encouraging them to come forward, and protecting reputations before guilt has been established.

Of course, such reasons are not always justified and not always persuasive. What is significant, however, is that canon law specialists consulted about Crimen Sollicitationis, while properly critical of wrongful conduct by bishops and priests, have dismissed the theory that the document was meant to cover up clerical wrongdoing, or that it was used for that purpose.

It would be unfair to conclude that Mr. Hitchens deliberately distorted and withheld all of this information. One hesitates to attribute his failings to malicious anti-catholic bigotry.

Perhaps he was just remarkably careless in his reading and incompetent in his research.

Note: This article, with supporting endnotes and hotlinks, is available here.

A more extensive response to Hitchens' accusations is available here or in pdf here.


Sean Murphy. "Response to Christopher Hitchens' 'The Great Catholic Coverup'." submitted to the National Post (March 22, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Sean Murphy.


Sean Murphy is a Catholic layman. He retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2009 after almost 35 years' police service. While not a specialist in sexual assault, during the course of his service he was responsible for the investigation of current and historical sex crimes against children and adults (including false allegations), leading, in one case, to the conviction of a Catholic priest.  Over the years he was described by superiors as "tenacious," "conscientious" and "meticulously thorough."  This article should not be understood to represent the views of the RCMP or its members.

Mr. Murphy has made a special study of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage. His paper on the nuptial meaning of the Eucharist was among three chosen for presentation at the 1993 conference of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and later published in the conference proceedings. His articles have appeared in Catholic periodicals, including the BC Catholic, Catholic Insight magazine and the Journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Canada). Others are posted on the Internet at the Catholic Education Resource Centre, Catholic Exchange (http://www.evangelization.com) and the Catholic Civil Rights League website.   His comments and responses to attacks on religious freedom and Catholic teaching have appeared in the media, including some BC community papers, the Vancouver Sun, The Province, Xtra West, the Ottawa Citizen, Halifax Daily News, the BC Catholic, and Christian Week.

Copyright © 2010 Sean Murphy

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