A Response to Christopher Hitchens' 'The Great Catholic Coverup' (with references)SEAN MURPHY
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 instruction1 was issued to clarify how reports of clerical sexual misconduct were to be handled.2 Ratzinger's directive actually facilitated Church proceedings against clerical sex offenders by extending time limits that had previously hampered prosecutions.3 Limitations of action are not unique to Canon Law. They exist in secular legal jurisdictions,4 and can prevent prosecution of serious sex crimes.5
The so-called "confidential" instruction was published and appeared in English in 2001.6 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.7 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 instruction8 that Ratzinger merely noted had been under review.9
Virtually all of Crimen Sollicitationis concerned the investigation and prosecution of complaints of sexual solicitation of penitents by priests in confession.10 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.11 The same policies and procedures were to be adapted and applied to the "worst crimes," including sexual aggression against minors.12
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.13
Officials investigating or involved in proceedings pertaining to these "unspeakable crimes" were required to take an oath of perpetual secrecy, on pain of excommunication.14 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.15 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.16
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.17
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.18
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.
Epistula Congregatione pro Doctrina Fidei missa ad totius Catholicae
Ecclesiae Episcopos aliosque Ordinarios et Hierarchas interesse habentes: de
delictis gravioribus eidem Congregationi pro Doctrina Fidei reservatis
2. Catholic World News, "New rules give Vatican responsibility for certain clerical discipline." 7
January, 2002 (Accessed 2010-03-19)
3. ". . .in extending
jurisdiction over these cases to 10 years past the alleged victim’s 18[th] birthday, CDF actually increased the amount of time that Church officials
(whether diocesan or Roman) had to prosecute these offenses. Before CDF’s
letter, canonical prosecutions were complicated by unduly short statutes of
limitations—the very same problem, by the way, that state prosecutions
encountered in many pedophilia cases. CDF was hardly obstructing justice; it was
trying to make justice more available." Peters, Edward N., "Much Ado About Not Much."
In the Light of the Law: A Canon Lawyer’s Blog on Current Issues, 27 April,
2005. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
6. Origins 31:32, January 24,
7. Catholic media reported on and
explained the instruction in January, 2002 (See note 2). Newspapers in
Massachusetts published stories about the document Mr. Hitchens quotes in July,
2003. CBS News tried to take credit for the news the following month. The
Observer, cited by Mr. Hitchens, purported to break the story in 2005, while
the BBC ‘exposed’ the instruction in 2006. A CBS feature ‘discovered’ it in late
2009. URL’s available upon request.
8. Supremae Sacrae Congregationis
Sancti Officii, Instructio de modo procendi in causis de crimine sollicitationis. 16
March, 1962. (Accessed 2010-03-19). Hereinafter
9. ". . .the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith . . . devoted itself to a diligent study of the canons on
delicts both of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern
Churches. . . because the instruction Crimen Sollicitationis
. . . in force until now, was to be reviewed when the new canonical codes
were promulgated. . ." Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,
Letter to Bishops of the entire Catholic Church and other Ordinaries and
Hierarchs having an interest regarding the more seriouis offenses reserved to
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (English
translation from Origins 31:32, January 24, 2001. (Accessed
2010-03-19). Emphasis added.
10. 70 of 74 paragraphs concern solicitation.
11. "‘The bulk of the document
instructs bishops on how to investigate such cases, placing great emphasis on
secrecy to preserve the seal of confession,’ said the Rev. Ladislas Orsy,
professor of canon law at Georgetown University. ‘You're dealing with an
extremely delicate situation, because the priest cannot reveal anything that was
said, even to defend himself,’ he said." Cooperman, Alan, Vatican "Memo
Cited in Sex Abuse Cases: Significance of 1962 Secrecy Order Disputed."
Washington Post, 25 August, 2003. (Accessed 2010-03-19).
Sollicitationis (English), paragraph 13. See also Doyle, Thomas,
The 1962 Vatican Instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, promulgated March 16, 1962, 1 April, 2008, paragraph 15. (Accessed 2010-03-19).
17. Allen, John L.,"1962 document orders secrecy in sex cases: many bishops unaware obscure missive was in their archives." National Catholic Reporter, 7 August, 2003
(Accessed 2010-03-19); Peters, Edward N., "Much Ado About Not Much."
In the Light of the Law: A Canon Lawyer’s Blog on Current Issues, 27 April,
2005. (Accessed 2010-03-19)
18. Fr. Francis Morrisey, St.
Paul’s University: "Of course, a bishop couldn't use this document to cover up
denunciation of an act of sexual abuse. . .The document simply wasn't made for
that purpose." Allen, John L., "1962
document orders secrecy in sex cases: many bishops unaware obscure missive was
in their archives." National Catholic Reporter, 7 August, 2003
A more extensive response to Hitchens' accusations is available here.
and in pdf format 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.
THE AUTHORSean 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
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.