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CBS news story distorts 1962 Vatican document (Analysis) August 07, 2003

A CBS network news report, claiming that the Holy See orchestrated a cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, is based on a gross misinterpretation of a 1962 Vatican document.

In a sensationalist report aired on August 6, CBS Evening News claimed to have discovered a secret document proving that the Vatican had approved-- and even demanded-- a longstanding policy of covering up clerics' sexual misdeeds.

The document cited by CBS does nothing of the sort.

In fact the network's story misrepresented the Vatican document so thoroughly that it is difficult to attribute the inaccuracy to honest error.

The CBS story is based on a secret Instruction issued to bishops in March 1962 by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then the prefect of the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). That document sets forth the canonical procedures to be followed when a priest is charged with the ecclesiastical crime of "solicitation"-- that is, using the confessional to tempt penitents to engage in sexual activity.

[The Vatican document, in an awkward English translation, can be downloaded from the CBS News site. CBS also offers the Latin original.]

The Vatican document deals exclusively with solicitation: an offense which, by definition, occurs within the context of the Sacrament of Penance. And since that sacrament is protected by a shroud of absolute secrecy, the procedures for dealing with this ecclesiastical crime also invoke secrecy.

In short, by demanding secrecy in the treatment of these crimes, the Vatican was protecting the secrecy of the confessional. The policy outlined in that 1962 document is clearly not intended to protect predatory priests; on the contrary, the Vatican makes it clear that guilty priests should be severely punished and promptly removed from ministry.

It is important to keep in mind that the 1962 Vatican Instruction dealt exclusively with "solicitation" as that term is understood in ecclesiastical usage, under the terms of the Code of Canon Law. The policies set forth by Cardinal Ottaviani do not pertain to the sexual misdeeds of clerics, but to the efforts by priest to obtain sexual favors though the misuse of their confessional role.

It is also important to note that because solicitation takes place inside the confessional, only the accused priest and the penitent could possibly have direct evidence as to whether or not the crime took place. If the solicitation led to actual sexual activity, that misconduct could be the subject of an entirely separate investigation, not bound by the same rules of secrecy.

The crime of "solicitation" has always been viewed by the Catholic Church as an extremely serious offense, calling for the strongest available penalties. Cardinal Ottaviani stresses that any confessor who solicits sexual favors from his penitents should be suspended from ministry and stripped of all priestly privileges. These penalties apply to all cases of solicitation, whether they involve minor children or adults of either sex. The 1962 document is concerned with all instances of solicitation; it does not concentrate on the solicitation of children.

The CBS report claimed:

The confidential Vatican document, obtained by CBS News, lays out a church policy that calls for absolute secrecy when it comes to sexual abuse by priests-- anyone who speaks out could be thrown out of the church.

That is inaccurate.

While it is true that the Vatican document threatens excommunication for anyone who discloses the proceedings of an ecclesiastical trial for "solicitation," it does not bar the priest's accuser from making separate charges about the priest's sexual misconduct. In fact the document makes it clear that during the canonical trial, the accuser should not be questioned about any sexual activity that he may have undertaken with the priest; the accuser is to be questioned solely about what occurred within the confessional.

Thus, someone who was sexually abused by a priest would be free, under the 1962 Vatican policy, to bring criminal charges against that priest for his sexual conduct, while simultaneously charging the priest with "solicitation" in an ecclesiastical court.

In fact, the Instruction from Cardinal Ottaviani stresses (in section 18) that every Catholic has a solemn duty to bring canon-law charges against a priest who attempts to solicit sex through the confessional. The importance of that obligation is underlined by the fact that a Catholic who fails to report solicitation is subject to excommunication. Moreover, the penitent remains under this solemn obligation to report solicitation even if the priest has already confessed his crime.

The document on which CBS based its distorted story is a densely worded 24-page document, couched in the technical idiom of canon law, and accompanied by a 36-page Appendix that provides the formulas to be used in an ecclesiastical trial. No careful reader could fail to recognize that this was a specialized document, providing a set of procedures for a particular ecclesiastical offense. Why, then, did CBS News draw a broad general conclusion from a tightly focused legal document? Why did the network fail to distinguish between the ecclesiastical crime of solicitation and the public offense of pedophilia? The questions are worth pondering.