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Lawyers allege evidence supports Vatican cover-up

Policy's wording change questioned

by Richard Nangle, Worcester, MA Telegram & Gazette
July 31, 2003

Two lawyers handling Massachusetts clergy abuse cases say they have found further evidence of what they allege are Vatican efforts at a cover-up, bolstering their call for federal investigators to bring conspiracy charges against Catholic church leaders nationwide.

The use of the word "how" in a passage from a December 2002 policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was an attempt to keep clergy abuse cases out of the legal system, according to Houston lawyer Daniel J. Shea, who is pursuing the matter with lawyer Carmen Durso of Boston.

Both lawyers represent some local alleged victims of clergy abuse.

The policy states in part, "Unless the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, having been notified, calls the case to itself because of special circumstances, it will direct the bishop/eparch how to proceed."

"The word "how' is an addition to the revised text from the Nov. 2002 USCCB meeting," Monsignor Michael Higgins, a canon lawyer at Justice for Priests and Deacons, wrote in a commentary on the policy.

"It appears at this stage, one must wait for a response from the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). The congregation will either call the case to itself or notify the bishop/eparch how to proceed. The word, how, is an addition to the revised text from the Nov. 2, 2002 USCCB meeting. It suggests that the CDF may require a process that differs in some respects from that currently found in the two codes," he wrote.

Monsignor Higgins, who is based in San Diego, runs a Web site at and maintains that priests and deacons have rights under the church's canon law and should not surrender.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan of Boston, Mr. Shea referred to another passage from the bishop's conference policy statement as "an escape clause."

Mr. Shea quoted from the policy, "The necessary observance of the canonical norms internal to the church is not intended in any way to hinder the course of any civil action that may be operative. At the same time, the church reaffirms her right to enact legislation binding on all her members concerning the ecclesiastical dimensions of the delict of sexual abuse of minors."

The bishops' policy statement is titled, "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons."

"It's all smoke and mirrors," Mr. Shea said. "These children are no safer now than they have ever been."

A spokesman for Mr. Sullivan has said the office is reviewing the Vatican document titled, "On the Manner of Proceeding in Cases of Solicitation."

A group of victims delivered a copy of the 38-page document to Mr. Sullivan's office on Monday.

Last week, state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly declined to press charges against church leaders in the Archdiocese of Boston who moved accused priests from parish to parish and did not report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities. Mr. Shea and Mr. Durso believe the existence of the secret Vatican paper will aid authorities in determining that a conspiracy exists to protect priests accused of sexual abuse.

Published by the Vatican in 1962, the document states that it must be stored in "secret archives" and is to be treated as "strictly confidential." It specifically tells bishops, archbishops and patriarchs how to handle allegations that a priest made sexual advances toward a person in the confessional.

The document says church officials investigating sexual abuse claims "are to be restrained by a perpetual silence" and are required "to observe the strictest secret, which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office in all matters and with all persons, under the penalty of excommunication ..." The oath of secrecy is also required of those accusing a priest and any witnesses.

Victims who do not come forward within 30 days are also subject to excommunication, according to the document.

Should an accused priest go before a church trial, "in every way the judge is to remember that it is never right for him to bind the accused by an oath to tell the truth," the document says.

In a letter to Mr. Sullivan earlier this week, Mr. Shea said the document is referenced in a footnote to a May 18, 2002, letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to all bishops of the Catholic church.

Richard Nangle can be reached by e-mail at

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests