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Canon law newsletters show ongoing document discussions

Kathleen A. Shaw
August 21, 2003

The Vatican recently said its 1962 directive concerning how allegations of sexual abuse involving the sacrament of confession are to be handled had not been in force for years, but newsletters of the Canon Law Society of America show that discussions of the document continued until last year.

Lawyers Daniel J. Shea of Houston and Carmen L. Durso of Boston recently presented a copy of the Vatican document, called in Latin "Crimen Sollicitationes" - or "On the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitations"- to U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan in Boston.

The U.S. attorney told Mr. Shea last week that he is studying the document. The lawyers are asking that the federal government investigate what they see as an international conspiracy by the Catholic church to cover up cases of sexual abuse by clergy.

The newsletters of the Canon Law Society show that officers met in Rome in February 2002, a time when the churchwide sexual abuse scandal broke open in Boston with new revelations about the extent of clergy sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese.

In this meeting with representatives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the newsletter said, "Our discussion at the Congregation focused on identification of certain aspects of procedures for clergy sexual misconduct, particularly the 1962 instruction "Crimen Sollicitationes" and the more recent instruction "Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela."

Mr. Shea, who found "Sacramentorum Sactitatis Tutela" on the Vatican Web site in 2002, said the English translation clearly shows that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctine of the Faith, indicated that the 1962 directive was in effect "until now." Mr. Shea did not know the 1962 document existed until he saw it footnoted in the Ratzinger document.

The 1962 directive, which was approved by Pope John XXII, indicated strictest secrecy in handling these allegations. It was sent to all bishops throughout the world and they were instructed to keep the document secret.

The later document by Cardinal Ratzinger was intended to bring the manner of handling sexual abuse complaints against clergy in line with the new canon law code.

The newsletter did not give details of these discussions, but said they also talked about "procedures and time limits in the prosecution of particular cases."

During a 1996 meeting of Canon Law Society officers in Rome, officers were told that the norms listed in the 1962 document were under review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "New norms are required in light of the revision of canon law. In the interim, the 1962 norms should be followed, with obvious adaptations," the newsletter said.

The Roman Catholic church is governed by its own Code of Canon Law, which was last revised in 1983. The church has canon lawyers who are certified to interpret the law of the church and to work within its internal system of jurisprudence. These lawyers can be priests, lay people or members of religious orders. Their main umbrella organization in this country is the Canon Law Society of America.

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said it is evident that the 1962 document was not an obscure document that expired 20 years ago as the Vatican has said.

"I may disagree with Dan Shea on this, but I think the significance of the document is more sociological than legal. It is a window into the mind-set of the hierarchy," Mr. Clohessy said.

The 1962 document is finding its way into civil lawsuits across the United States as lawyers seek to prove that the Vatican for years has encouraged secrecy and cover-ups regarding sexual abuse allegations.

The issue got hotter last weekend when The Observer, based in London, printed a link to the document and produced its own story about the controversy. The story was then picked up by newspapers throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, Taipei, Australia and other locations.

The Internet link to the document is based in Worcester. Criminales.pdf was done by Timothy P. Staney of Worcester, who first linked the document on his own Web site at It then spread to Web sites around the world.

Mr. Staney alleges in a lawsuit that he was sexually abused by the Rev. Jean-Paul Gagnon and a religious education teacher, Raymond Tremblay. Both assert their innocence and the suit is pending. Mr. Staney alleges that sexual abuse by Rev. Gagnon involved the sacrament of confession.

Karen A. Pedersen of Fitchburg alleges in her suit that the Rev. Robert E. Kelley used his own confession ritual, which involved bathing her naked in the rectory, to absolve her of sin, according to her lawyer, Gary LeBlanc of Gardner.

The Vatican has asserted that the document, which it said is authentic, was revised in the late 1960s and again in 1983 with the new Code of Canon Law. Vatican officials also said the procedures were revised again in 2001.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the secrecy called for in the document was intended to protect the "rights and dignity" of both accuser and accused, just as many civil court procedures are kept confidential.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests