Fall 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Under Whatever

The Anglican Crackup

The View From Lagos

Special Supplement:
Religion and the 2004 Election

The Case of Chaplain Yee

Instructions From the Vatican

The Social Gospel Lays an Egg in Alabama

God and the EU Charter

Mel Gibson, the Scribes, and the Pharisees

Gibson and Traditionalist Catholicism

The Religion of Country



Instructions From the Vatican
by Andrew Walsh

More than most stories, coverage of the Catholic sex abuse scandals has been about documents. A vast paper trail—hundreds of thousands of pages of legal records, personnel files, internal church letters and memoranda, and oceans of other pieces of paper—has made it possible for journalists to cover the story. And yet, these documents have often raised thorny problems of interpretation—and some journalists are beginning to prick their fingers. To wit:

On August 6, CBS “Evening News” led by announcing a “surprising development” in the Catholic scandal. The headline was: “CBS NEWS uncovers the Vatican’s secret orders to conceal sex abuse by priests.” Anchor Scott Pelley then introduced the story by saying,  “For decades, some priests abused children, and their superiors tried to keep it quiet. Now it turns out the cover-up was inspired by an order from the highest levels of the Vatican.”

Big news, indeed. Correspondent Vince Gonzales then reported that a “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.”

At issue was a 60-page Latin document, stamped confidential and called Crimen sollicitationis, or “Instructions on Proceeding in Cases of  the Crime of Solicitation,” that was promulgated in 1962 in the waning days of Pope John XXIII’s pontificate. One of Gonzales’ sources, an attorney named Larry Drivon, called it “a blueprint for deception” and proof that the Catholic Church had been guilty of racketeering over the course of decades.

Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church’s spokesman didn’t regard it as anything of the sort. “The idea that this is some sort of blueprint to keep this secret is simply wrong,” Monsignor Frank Maniscalco of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told CBS.

The bishops conference, Gonzales reported, said the “document is being taken out of context, that it’s a church law that deals only with rare internal trials of religious crimes and sins and that the secrecy is meant to protect the faithful from scandal.”

The story created an instant buzz, but then died away, almost in the same week. To understand why, some probing of CBS’ approach is in order.

First, the August 6 story, which was repeated twice on the morning of August 7, created the misimpression that the network had broken the story—something the large pool of journalists who have been covering the Catholic scandal recognized instantly. In fact, the story was actually broken on July 29 by Kathleen A. Shaw, a veteran religion writer at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette in Massachusetts. A version of the story moved that day on the Associated Press. Similar stories then appeared in the Boston Herald and the Lawrence Eagle Tribune.

Far more significantly, all of the Massachusetts papers, veterans of the sex abuse scandal, treated the document much more circumspectly. The Herald ran its story on page 8. The Boston Globe never published a story about it. And beginning with Shaw, all of them emphasized that the source of the document was a group of lawyers representing alleged victims of the sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Shaw, for example, mentioned the lawyers in her lede. The main point of her story was that plaintiffs’ lawyers were trying to use the document to persuade federal district attorneys that the church had been obstructing justice systematically. Boston attorney Carmen L. Durso, Shaw wrote, had asked U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan “to find legal grounds under federal law to prosecute those in the hierarchy who have covered up these sexual abuse cases.”

Then, the day after the CBS News report, the Boston Herald published a story that focused as much on the challenge of interpreting lawyers’ motives as on the complex and ambiguous secret document.

“A Vatican document heralded recently as a blueprint for shrouding clergy sexual abuse in secrecy was in fact a narrow set of instructions for disciplining priests who used the confessional to solicit sex, canon lawyers said yesterday,” the Herald’s Eric Convey wrote on August 8. “As such, several experts in church law said, the document will provide little fodder for plaintiff’s attorneys seeking to use it as proof that the Vatican ran a broad cover-up scheme to protect priests who molested children.”

The canon lawyers, Convey reported, tended to view the document as attempting to provide the church with procedures to protect the sanctity of the confessional, not to block the possibility of criminal charges.

“Basically, that document is about solicitation in the confessional,” the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who had testified frequently on behalf of sexual abuse victims. “But I think it’s a good historical document and it illustrates the mindset of the Vatican in dealing with these problems.”

The Telegram and Gazette, Herald and the Orange County Register in California also made it perfectly clear that plaintiff’s lawyers had distributed the document widely to journalists. “The document’s existence was first reported last week in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette in Massachusetts,” Jim Hinch of the Register wrote on August 8. Houston attorney Daniel Shea, who had clients in Massachusetts, told Hinch that he had given the documents first to the Telegram and Gazette’s Shaw because “he had worked closely with her on past stories about lawsuits.”

And so, on the evening of August 8, CBS returned to the story for some fine-tuning. “CBS News is getting a lot of reaction, pro and con, to our report this week that revealed a 40-year old Vatican plan for dealing with sex abuse allegations,” news anchor Pelley allowed in his introduction to another piece by correspondent Gonzales.

Gonzales reported that there was disagreement about whether the document referred solely to cases of misconduct during the sacrament of confession, or had broader application, and also about how recently—if ever—the document had been in circulation among Catholic bishops.

Richard Sipe, a former priest and therapist who has been one of the principal sources for the media during the scandal, told Gonzales that despite its complexity the document was indeed important. “The point is, it is about sexual abuse and it is about secrecy, and it is about very profound secrecy in which any sexual abuse is to be contained,” Sipe said.

Gonzales, based in Los Angeles, also used the follow-up story to clear up the question of reportorial priority, noting that “media outlets in New England first reported the document’s existence.”

The job of sorting out the pieces was taken on by the Washington Post’s Alan Cooperman, in a solid 1,257-word report published on August 25. He, too, emphasized the legal context of the dispute: “Plaintiff’s attorneys in sex abuse lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church are brandishing a new weapon—or, actually—a rather old one: a 1962 Vatican document that some say is ‘the smoking gun’ in a conspiracy to cover up sex crimes by priests.”

Cooperman reported that Shea, whom he described as circulating the document, was still insisting that Crimen sollicitationis is “not just a smoking gun, but a nuclear bombshell” that “shows that the Vatican has been providing instruction to all bishops in the United States to obstruct justice…That’s called a criminal conspiracy.”

Journalists struggling to judge the actual significance of the document, face a problem that has dogged them throughout the scandal: the paucity of neutral “experts.” Huge quantities of data have come from plaintiff’s attorneys. This group, while often the last resort of victims, stands to make millions of dollars from judgments and settlements against the church. Crimen sollicitationis surfaced at the end of a long stretch of bad news for plaintiffs hoping that state prosecutors would file criminal charges against Catholic bishops.

On the other side, those trained to interpret the arcane legal language of the Catholic church are almost all employed by the church.

Nevertheless, Cooperman found canon lawyers willing and able to explain the Vatican document. It was neither, they said, a sweeping policy program for cover-ups nor a very narrow legal instrument designed to cope with the rare problem of confessors commiting sexual abuse in the confessional—as outraged Catholic critics like William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights had contended.

The Rev. John Beal, a professor of canon law at Catholic University in Washington, told Cooperman that the bulk of the document did indeed deal with the rare and complicated problem of “a confessor who tries to seduce or lure a penitent into a sexual sin…whether or not the act takes place in the confessional.”

The Rev. Ladislas Orsy, a canon law professor at Georgetown University, said he doubted that the document was anything like a direct order from the Vatican to cover up the crimes of priests. “The bishops always tried to cover up things that might reflect badly on the church, and you can see that in the sexual abuse cases,” Orsy said. “This document reflects a mentality and a policy. I do not think [the document] initiated it. And I do not think as a practical matter that [the document] contributed much to it, because for the most part this document was just sitting in the archives.”

Cooperman closed his piece with a long series of comments from Thomas Doyle, the canon lawyer and U.S. Air Force chaplain whose comments have cropped up so often in stories about the current scandal. Doyle has almost universal credibility because he served on the Vatican’s staff in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s and, in Cooperman’s words, “co-wrote a landmark report urging U.S. bishops to tackle sexual abuse more openly.” The report’s unflinching critique of the bishops’ practices ended Doyle’s own meteoric trajectory upward into the Catholic hierarchy. In 1986, he joined the Air Force as a chaplain, a sort of pastoral Siberia in which he has enjoyed plenty of room to act on behalf of victims of sexual abuse.

Over the past several years, journalists have hung a lot on Doyle’s say-so, and Cooperman was no exception in this piece, quoting from a lengthy e-mail analysis of the document that Doyle had sent him. The Catholic hierarchy, Doyle wrote, had perpetrated “wave after wave of deception, stonewalling, outright lying, intimidation of victims and complex schemes to manipulate the truth and obstruct justice.” But, he added, in this case, the plaintiff’s lawyers “seem to be stretching a bit too far to conclude that this process is a substitute for civil law action or is an attempt to coddle or hide clergy who perpetrate sex crimes.”

Doyle’s views appear judicious and well-informed. But there is a serious sourcing problem here. Cooperman himself noted that Doyle had provided Crimen sollicitationis to Shea, and, together with stray references from other journalists, the following picture emerges.

Doyle triggered this cycle in the larger story of the scandal by providing the Vatican document to plaintiff’s lawyers. In fact, he translated it into English for Shea. After the lawyers acquainted the news media with the document, many journalists proceeded to quote Doyle, not as the source of the leaked document but rather as a disinterested expert on Catholic law and practice.

Regardless of whether Doyle is right or wrong in his interpretation of Crimen sollicitationis, it’s Journalism 101 that anyone so centrally involved in a major litigation process shouldn’t get such treatment. It’s about time to stop giving Tom Doyle a free ride.



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