Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Narcotic Of Secrecy, The

by R. Michael Dunnigan, JD, JCL, Charles M. Wilson


An analysis of the scandal of secrecy plaguing the Church today.

Larger Work



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Publisher & Date

The Saint Joseph Foundation, San Antonio, TX, May 1, 2002

Narcotic n. 1: a drug (as opium) that in moderate doses dulls the senses, relieves pain, and induces profound sleep but in excessive doses causes stupor, coma, or convulsions — Merriam-Webster's Medical Desk Dictionary1

An ecclesiastical Enron. The Church's Watergate. A cancer on the Church. Observers have fixed on these three images to describe the widespread seduction of young boys by Catholic priests in dioceses across America.2 The observers who use these images no doubt wish to shock the public into appreciating the magnitude of the scandal. In fact, however, these metaphors are inadequate. Unsettling though they may be, the problem with these images is not that they go too far, but rather that they do not go far enough. Images of disease and institutional corruption may be apt to describe the strictly sexual portion of the current scandal, but they fail to do justice to the scandal beneath the scandal.

As the secular press has made clear, the scandal beneath the sex scandal is the American bishops' culture of obsessive secrecy. What the press has not made clear, however, is just how deep and extensive the roots of this culture are. The roots are deep enough to give the culture of secrecy a firmly entrenched position in American dioceses, and they are extensive enough to influence virtually every question that the U.S. bishops address.

To describe accurately this arch-scandal of the American bishops, one requires images of an entirely different order of magnitude. Thus, if pedophilia is the Watergate of the American bishops, then the culture of secrecy is their Chernobyl. If the seduction of adolescent boys (ephebophilia) by predatory homosexual priests is another Enron, then the culture of secrecy that coddles these priests is another stock market crash. And if active homosexuality among American priests and seminarians is a cancer on the Church, then the culture of secrecy that conceals and excuses their behavior is another Plague, another Black Death.

Protecting The Predators

The fixed star that has guided many American bishops in their handling of sexual abuse cases has been neither justice nor compassion, but rather secrecy. Bishops in the U.S. have taken extraordinary steps to prevent the faithful — and the general public — from learning of the sexual abuse of children by priests. They have pursued this policy of secrecy in every realm, including their pastoral decisions, their legal strategies, and their dealings with the laity.

There may have been a time when one reasonably could have argued that secrecy in sexual abuse cases served legitimate goals such as investigating claims thoroughly, protecting reputations, limiting scandal, and doing justice expeditiously. However, it now has become indisputable that, in fact, American bishops have used secrecy more often as a weapon than as a healing balm. This becomes clear when one considers how bishops customarily have dealt with claims of abuse in each of the following stages:

1. Complaints. Lay men and women report that Church authorities often have tried to silence them when they have reported sexual abuse of a minor by a priest.3 Sometimes Church authorities would accuse them of slander.4 Church authorities in the dioceses of Dallas, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia have at times attempted to shift the blame to the underage victims of the priests' sexual abuse or to their families.5

2. Assignments. Even when bishops have listened to victims, they often have responded simply by moving the priest from one parish to another.6 Sometimes the pastor of the new parish would be informed of the priest's past, but the parishioners never were informed.

3. Concealment of documents. Perhaps the low point in the culture of secrecy took place in 1990. In that year, Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn of Cleveland, a civil lawyer and a canon lawyer, advised diocesan canonists to conceal priestly misconduct by sending the pertinent documents to the Apostolic Delegate in Washington "because they have immunity."7

4. Litigation. Where the bishop is sued on account of sexual abuse by a priest, he usually settles the case and insists on a confidentiality order preventing anyone from learning the amount of the settlement.8

5. Aftermath of the lawsuits. In addition, the bishop often seeks to have the court file sealed to prevent other people from learning the facts of the case.9

6. Concealment of expenditures. Bishops refuse to disclose the amount of money that American dioceses have paid out in judgments, settlements, and defense costs. Estimates run as high as one billion dollars, but American Church officials never disclose the total costs.10 (The tax code exacerbates the situation by exempting the Church not only from paying income tax, but from making any public disclosure of its finances. It is laudable for the government to refrain from interfering with the Church, but it is regrettable that Church leaders take advantage of this policy to conceal information about how they spend the money that the laity contributes.)

The clear pattern that emerges is that many Catholic bishops in America will go to almost any length to enshroud priestly sexual abuse in secrecy and to evade scrutiny of their own actions and those of the offending priests.

The Archdiocese of Boston provides the most recent illustration of this culture of secrecy. Although Bernard Cardinal Law's apology is now well known, the cardinal issued his apology only after losing a legal battle to keep the court file on John J. Geoghan secret. Geoghan is the now-defrocked Boston priest who stands accused of molesting 130 boys and who, despite his history of abuse, was repeatedly reassigned to parish ministry by Law.

Even after losing the secrecy battle over the Geoghan case, Cardinal Law attempted to obtain a gag order to prevent anyone from publicly discussing the case of another Boston priest, Fr. Paul R. Shanley. When Law failed in his court battle to keep the case secret, the public learned that Shanley, despite his record as an admitted child rapist and public advocate of sex between men and boys, received the following recommendation from Law's administration for ministry in another diocese: "I can assure you that Father Shanley has no problem that would be of concern to your diocese."11

Protecting The Professors

Catholics might be tempted to assume that sex scandals are the lone weak spot in the administration of American dioceses. In fact, however, the extreme secrecy that has had such a devastating impact in the area of sexual abuse is equally pervasive in many other areas as well. We are referring not to situations in which the Church has a real need for secrecy, such as the confessional seal, but rather to areas in which there is no apparent need for secrecy, but in which Church leaders nonetheless routinely refuse to disclose information.

For example, just as Cardinal Law has attempted to shield his handling of priestly sexual abuse from public view, so has he also attempted to evade scrutiny of his oversight of Catholic universities. The primary safeguard of the Catholic nature of a university is the canonical requirement that professors obtain Church approval, or a mandatum, if they wish to teach theology.12 However, Cardinal Law has said not only that he would be unlikely to require theologians to fulfill this requirement, but also that he would not disclose to the laity the names of theologians who refuse to obtain the mandatum.13 Thus, just as the cardinal denied Boston parishioners the information that would have enabled them to protect their children against Fathers Geoghan and Shanley, so does he also deny Boston students and alumni the information that could enable them to protect themselves and their children from erroneous doctrine and questionable theology.14

Justice Under A Bushel Basket

No area of Catholic life is more thoroughly encased in secrecy than the Church's legal system.15 Public hearings are unheard of, even on matters that concern the good of the whole Church. A Catholic who has a complaint about his pastor's or his bishop's administration never has a right to obtain copies of relevant documents. Church courts frequently prohibit canonists from discussing aspects of cases even with their own clients. Moreover, the Church's highest court generally issues written decisions only on the condition that no one makes them public. As a result of this opaqueness in canonical processes, aggrieved Catholics who have claims under both civil law and canon law often choose to pursue their civil claims first because the civil fora, unlike the canonical, provide open hearings and equal access to evidence. Evidence from a civil proceeding is admissible in a canonical action, but, unless one pursues the civil claim first, the canonical process likely will allow important information to remain hidden.

Even where the circumstances justify some level of confidentiality, canonical practice often imposes an extreme level of secrecy that is disproportionate to serving the legitimate ends of protecting reputations and privacy. For example, cases concerning nullity of marriage frequently involve sensitive facts regarding the relationship between husband and wife. Tribunal practice understandably prevents disclosure of these facts. However, there is another important interest that tribunal practice ignores entirely.

The faithful have a legitimate interest in knowing whether or not a person is married in the Church. The Council of Trent prohibited secret marriages because of the social upheaval that resulted from widespread uncertainty over who was married and who was not.16 Catholics today are in a situation similar to the one that prevailed before the Council of Trent. Many Catholics are in second and third marriages, and often it is impossible to tell whether or not a fellow parishioner is married validly in the Church. This situation exists in every American diocese, but it is particularly acute in Boston. Boston Catholics periodically see Cardinal Law giving communion in public to members of the Kennedy family who are known or believed to be living in irregular marriages, and many naturally wonder whether respect is being given to the norm that prohibits Catholics in such marriages from receiving communion.17

The Church might consider adopting a practice that would protect both individual privacy interests and the interests of the Catholic community in knowing who is married and who is not. For example, tribunals could publish a list of their decisions in the diocesan newspapers. They might limit the publication to stating simply whether the marriage was judged valid or invalid, without disclosing any particular facts or allegations. This proposal would require a change of current practice and possibly changes in the law. However, such changes would be a welcome acknowledgement that marriage is the concern not of individuals only, but of the entire community.

Freezing Out The Laity

Among the various questions that American bishops have addressed recently, it is difficult to find one that has not been characterized by excessive secrecy. The U.S. conference of bishops recently passed norms that could devastate the Catholic media apostolate in America. They formulated these norms in secret and passed them in undue haste, so that neither the broadcasters nor their loyal listeners and viewers had any opportunity for input.

Another issue that many bishops have addressed in secret is the question of home schooling. Policies on home schooling vary from diocese to diocese, but interested parents usually find that they are barred from having any voice in the drafting of such policies. In fact, where the diocese has a policy in place, parents sometimes find that the chancery is unwilling even to provide them with a copy.

Secrecy also permeates church renovation projects. Modernist renovators have ignited so much controversy throughout the country that some bishops and pastors are responding by wrapping the entire renovation process in secrecy. Our own cathedral in San Antonio is now the subject of a renovation project. Because this cathedral has the oldest church sanctuary in America, the renovation is a matter of concern to both Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the archdiocese. Nevertheless, the archbishop has hired the godfather of modernist church renovation, Fr. Richard Vosko, and refuses to tell the people what changes he plans to make. The faithful of the cathedral parish and the archdiocese do not even have the leverage that comes with "voting with their pocketbooks" because the archbishop has secured millions of dollars in gifts from large corporate donors to finance the renovation.

Mutual Protection And An Allergy To Criticism

The bishops' frequent reliance on secrecy renders them acutely sensitive to criticism. At least two bishops have lashed out against members of the faithful who have questioned the bishops' handling of sexual abuse cases. In one of these cases, the bishop retaliated against a layman not for criticizing the bishop himself, but for criticizing another bishop in a different part of the country. This episode reveals a culture not only of secrecy, but also of mutual protection among bishops.

Lay people and even some priests have called on Cardinal Law to resign, but one will never hear an American bishop echoing the same call. Among the approximately 375 bishops in the United States, it is possible that at least one believes that Cardinal Law's resignation would accelerate the healing of the Church in America. However, no American bishop will call for Law to resign, because even the best bishops have submitted to the bondage of a warped sense of collegiality that renders criticism of another bishop the ultimate taboo.

Recall how Archbishop Weakland defied the Holy See last summer by proceeding with the renovation of his cathedral in the face of the Holy See's judgment that the renovation was unlawful. Weakland claimed the support of several bishops and cardinals, but not a single American bishop spoke up either for the 2,500 lay people who opposed the renovation or for the Holy See.18 By the same token. Cardinal Law claims that he enjoys the support of his brother bishops, and not a single one dares to challenge him.19

Beyond The Culture Of Secrecy

The Church always will require a certain amount of secrecy. Secrecy is essential in the confessional and is fully justified in the papal conclave. Where the Church is persecuted, her very survival may depend on secrecy. However, many bishops in our country have come to rely on secrecy not as a tonic to use sparingly in a few discrete situations, but rather as a crutch to lean on when traveling along any difficult path. In some places the reliance on secrecy has become an actual dependency, to such an extent that life apart from that secrecy may seem impossible.

However, history may have a lesson for our day. For a thousand years the popes wielded not only spiritual power but temporal power as well. When secular rulers plundered the Church's lands, good Catholics considered it a catastrophe. Gradually, however, they came to realize that the Church's vast land holdings had in fact been a burden to her and "a serious hindrance to the fruitfulness of her labors."20 Catholics were astonished to see the loss of these holdings infuse the Church with a new vitality in her spiritual mission.21

Perhaps it would be naive to expect American bishops to be more willing to break their dependence on secrecy than the popes were to give up their land holdings. But if the bishops can find the courage to break secrecy's hold, then they will reach the end of the long night of scandal and will awake refreshed.


1. Merriam-Webster's Medical Desk Dictionary (1996), s.v. "narcotic."

2. E.g., Rod Dreher, "Sins of the Fathers," National Review (11 Feb. 2002) ("an ecclesiastical Enron"); ABC News Special, Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned: The Catholic Church in Crisis (3 Apr. 2002) (Wm. Donohue: "the Church's Watergate"); Charles J. Sykes, "The Shame of Rembert Weakland" [on-line] available at http:// html (internet accessed 8 Apr. 2002) ("a cancer on the church").

3. Michael Kelly, "The Systematic Corruption of the Catholic Church," Washington Post (20 Mar. 2002), A33.

4. Eric Convey, "Cover-up charges made in alleged abuse case," Boston Herald (5 Apr. 2002) [on-line].

5. Christopher K. Hepp, "How church fights back in abuse cases," Philadelphia Inquirer (22 Mar. 2002); Renae Merle, "Ex-diocesan official says parents share blame for sex abuse," Associated Press (10 Aug. 1997); Rembert G. Weakland, Editorial, Catholic Herald (26 May 1988).

6. E.g., Eric Convey, "California parish rips Hub's silence on priest's past," Boston Herald (9 Apr. 2002) [on-line].

7. Jason Berry, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 290.

8. Cf. "The Economic Strain on the Church," Business Week (15 Apr. 2002) (quoting USCCB general counsel Mark Chopko).

9. Rod Dreher, "Sins of the Fathers," National Review (11 Feb. 2002) (quoting A.W. Richard Sipe).

10. Cf. "Economic Strain on the Church" (contrasting estimates by USCCB and plaintiffs' lawyers).

11. Eric Convey, "California parish rips Hub's silence on priest's past," Boston Herald (9 Apr. 2002) [on-line].

12. Can. 812; cf. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (15 Aug. 1990), General Norms, art. 4, §3.

13. Michael Paulson, "Bishops Say Theologians May Teach Without OK," Boston Globe (16 Nov. 2000); "U.S. Bishops Issue New Liturgy, Education, Health-Care Guidelines" [on-line], available from (internet accessed 7 Aug. 2001).

14. Elsewhere the situation is similar. Last year the bishops of Texas met behind closed doors with the presidents of Catholic colleges to discuss the mandatum requirement. Students and alumni were excluded. This is disturbing because of the bishops' reluctance to enforce the mandatum requirement. J. Michael Parker, "Flores Lets Profs Off Easy," San Antonio Express-News (14 Feb. 2001).

15. Cf. Francis G. Morrisey, "Canon Law Meets Civil Law," Studia Canonica, v. 32 (1998), 183-202, at 193 (canon law characterized by "an excessive preoccupation with secrecy").

16. Council of Trent, 24th sess.. Decree Concerning the Reform of Matrimony, ch. 1.

17. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (22 Nov. 1981), 84.

18. Tom Heinen, "Bishops back Weakland in dispute over cathedral," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (4 July 2001).

19. Michael Paulson, "Diocese will report ex-priests," Boston Globe (25 January 2002).

20. Canon Bellesheim of Aix-la-Chapelle, History of the Catholic Church in Scotland, vol. 4, pp. 335-336 (quoted in Charles Poulet and Sidney A. Raemers, A History of the Catholic Church [St. Louis, Mo.: B. Herder Book Co., 1934], vol. 2, p. 507).

21. Kenneth Scott Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958-62; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973), vol. 4, p. 23.

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