From the Dublin Cover-up to the Vatican Cover-up

The Irish Murphy report into clerical abuse in Dublin was a governmental investigation into the Irish bishops’ cover-up of the original crimes.  In the US, a vigorous press has done a great job of exposing corresponding cover-ups by the American bishops.  But who is to investigate the most important cover-up of all, that by the Vatican?  The Vatican’s obsession with control is well-known, and is agreed to be one of the key causes behind the problem of abuse itself.  It is inconceivable that the commitment to secrecy by local bishops could be just local decisions: they had to be acting under instruction form the Vatican, and the evidence is now coming to light.

Back in 2003, the Guardian /Observer newspaper in the UK, and CBS News in the USA, carried reports of an astonishing Vatican strategy going back almost half a century, to a directive prepared as far back as 1962 by the Vatican’s Holy Office.

It’s not immediately clear whether this document is still relevant, but it clearly deserves attention. However, two guiding principles contained in these instructions, and two not ably absent, have so characterised the response from the church that we must conclude that the its spirit, if not every detailed procedure, continues to dominate church thinking and procedure.

The first of the principles contained therein is emphasised right from the first lines:  “diligently stored in the secret archives of the curia as strictly confidsential”.

Note, please, that this instruction applies to secrecy over the procedures to be applied.  Even more serious is the insistence, disclosed later in the document,  of secrecy over the content of the investigations.

Because, however, what is treated in these cases has to have a degree of care and observance so that those same matters be pursued in a most secretive way, and after,…… they are to be restrained by a perpetual silence (Instruction of the Holy Office, February 20, 1867, n14), each and everyone pertaining to the tribunal in any way … is to observe the strictest secret.

How strictly secret, exactly?  Judge that from the penalty:

“under the penalty of excommunication latae sentential, ipso facto and without any declaration [of such a penalty] having been incurred …”

There.  This crime of breaking the oath of silence is so grave, so beyond excuse, that the penalty is automatic excommunication!  Pretty serious then, just for disclosing ing information.  You would think then, that the actula crimes that this document discusses must be more serious still, calling for a much more serious penalty (burning at the stake perhaps?) Wrong.  (We’ll get to that later.)

On whom does the responsibility of this grave oath fall?  On every person involved.  Elsewhere, it is repeatedly stressed that because of the gravity of these matters, only priests, preferably senior priests of mature years, should be involved in the investigation, and that the local ordinary should not delegate responsibility to any other person, except for very specific, occasional tasks.  Indeed, the only non-cleric who will be routinely admitted, is the complainant. But s/he too, is required to take this oath of secrecy – and will be liable to excommunication if the vow is broken.

That was the seriousness of secrecy required in 1962.  Have things changed, as the bishops claimed?

Well, the entire motivation for the Irish Murphy report was precisely the evidence that there had been a major cover-up by four Dublin archbishops preceding Dr Martin.  The first three did absolutely nothing to investigate or act on the problem, except to take out insurance.  The fourth, Archbishop Connell, made some perfunctory investigations – too little, too late was the verdict- and testified that for him, the biggest crisis on his watch was the demand to hand over his confidential files.

The Murphy commission requested information from the Vatican to assist in their investigation – and got no response.  Further requests were put to the papal nuncio in Dublin – and got no response.  On completion of the draft report, a copy was provided to the nuncio early this year – and got no response.  The official reason given after final publication, was that the request “should have been submitted through the proper diplomatic channels”.  I thought the whole point of the office of papal nuncio is that he is the diplomatic representative? If there had been a breach of procedure, could he not have simply clarified the correct procedure to secure a response?  Or was there, as I strongly suspect, simply no possible approach that could have obtained any response, over a determination by the Vatican to maintain their commitment to secrecy?

In the US, the commitment to secrecy is well known, as was shown most recently by the Bishop of Bridgeport’s determination to fight through the courts to maintain his secrets.


The second notable principle contained in the report is a clear concern to protect the rights of the accused priest.  It has been claimed that this concern lies at the heart of the concern for secrecy (Ha!), and the detailed procedures make provision for the equivalent of legal counsel, for an opportunity to deal with the allegations by a sacramental act of confession, by carefully detailed attention to procedure, including the preparation of a detailed statement of the allegations against him, and by ensuring that the only people involved in the investigation are themselves mature priests.

How has this concern, from half a century ago, been “superceded” today?  The Murphy report spells out how some offenders were explicitly told by their religious “superiors” to disregard the statements or blame of lay professionals, as only the verdict of fellow clergy counted..  In the vast majority of cases, the only “penalties” incurred, even by repeat offenders, were a transfer to a fresh jurisdiction, or possibly to “administrative leave”.  Similar examples of concern for the offenders is well –known from the US.


What is missing from the report?

Most conspicuously, any concern for the rights or welfare of the complainant.

In the entire 35 page document, the primary references to the complainant is that s/he should also be subject to the oath of secrecy, and that the main “witness” in the proceedings should be a person (ideally, one again, a priest) who knows both the accused and the accuser, to act as character witness for both.  I may have missed something in 35 odd pages of turgid legalistic text, but I found no reference to any form of legal representation, so suggestion of assistance in negotiating the unfamiliar world of priestly language, environment and procedures, nor any hint of help in dealing with possible hurt or trauma that may have been inflicted.  In many cases, there does not even seem to have been any recognition that injury may have occurred: the concern is more with the priest’s violation of his priestly office, than with any hurt done to the complainant.

How has this attitude been updated, over the last 50 years?

The Murphy report clearly describes the lack of attention paid in the past to the welfare of the victims.  The US John Jay study is silent on the matter- but as I noted in my own response to the report, this is the point.  It discusses the financial cost to the church, but completely ignores the human cost to the victims. This complete lack of concern for the victims has been widely reported on, in the US and elsewhere, and is neatly summed up by the response to one complainant that her sin “could be absolved”, and the remark by one offender that it had been just a bit of “innocent pleasure”.


Finally, also totally absent for the 1962 document is any reference to secular law or civil prosecution. The text bristles with references to clauses in canon law, and with detailed specifications of procedures to be followed – but never a word on the response to dealing with what in at least some cases, could be clear and serious criminal offences.

The extreme reluctance of the church authorities to turn their findings over to the police is well known.


So it is entirely possible that the 1962mtext on detailed procedures may have been superceded.  It would be surprising if it had not been – the language and some of those detailed procedures are clearly very dated. However, it is clear that the underlying spirit and tone are very much in force.  This was effectively made clear in 2001, in a document expanding on a text by Pope John Paul II, and which appears to be the basis of the “new regulations” described by the US bishops. This lette re-emphasised the requirement for secrecy, calling for internal investigation only. Who wrote it? Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the CDF:

Joseph Ratzinger was not only complicit in the cover up of child rape committed by priests, but as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he actively continued the church policy of secrecy and obstruction of justice. He was one of its chief architects for twenty years.

(“millstones and glass houses, Pam’s house blend”)

On gay marriage, on “cohabitation”, on contraception, the church freely sets itself up as our moral guardians.  ON questions of abuse – sexual and physical abuse of chidren, sexual abuse of young and older adults, emotional abuse of us all, and above all, abuse of trust:

“Quis custodes custodiet?”

Who is guarding the guards?

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3 Responses to “From the Dublin Cover-up to the Vatican Cover-up”

  1. William Lindsey Says:

    Terry, this is excellent analysis of a document that epitomizes the approach of the official sectors of the church to the phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors by clergy–secrecy, punishment of truth-tellers, creating smokescreens of plausible deniability, putting the perceived good of “the” church (i.e., of clerics) above the welfare of the flock, etc.

    You’re right to focus, too, on the glaring omissions of the document. As long as this approach remains dominant in official Catholic circles–and it does, despite all the revelations from 2002 forward–the church cannot legitimately claim to be pastoral at all.

  2. Hans Kung on “Unfortunate” Celibacy. « Queering the Church (towards a reality-based theology) Says:

    […] But this claim directly contradicts the documentary evidence, from the infamous 2001 letter from Benedict himself at the CDF, insisting on the utmost secrecy.  Nor was this a news rule:  it simply updated and restated a much earlier document from the 1960’s.  just over the last week, there have been reports from Ireland of how young children who had been abused, were made to swear oaths of secrecy.  This was not the aberrant decision of a local bishop, but was quite explicitly required by the Vatican directive. (See “From Dublin Cover -up to Vatican Cover-up“) […]

  3. Mark from PA Says:

    This is horrible.


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