As a tide of previously confidential Catholic Church documents about child sexual abuse by priests has risen over recent weeks, the Vatican has been able to say that none of them was a â€śsmoking gunâ€ť proving it had instructed bishops to cover up the scandals. This defense looks thinner than ever with the posting of a 2001 letter by Cardinal DarĂo CastrillĂłn Hoyos congratulating (yes, congratulating!) a bishop for not only hiding a self-confessed serial abuser but earning himself a criminal sentence for doing so.
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This amazing letter, in which Castrillon Hoyos promises Bayeux Bishop Pierre Pican he will be presented as a hero to all Catholic bishops around the world, exudes the arrogant atmosphere of Church superiority that victims say they have had to battle against for years to have their grievances taken seriously. It puts forward the incredible argument that a bishop, because he has a kind of â€śspiritual paternityâ€ť for priests under him, is equivalent to a father who is not obliged to testify against his son. It even cites Saint Paul and the Second Vatican Council as supporting this view.
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"I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration," Castrillon Hoyos said in the letter. "You have acted well and I am pleased to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all other bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his son and priest."
Earlier documents on the abuse crisis posted by the New York Times or the Associated Press illustrated the secrecy with which the Church handled such cases, but they did not provide the â€śsmoking gunâ€ť to prove that the Vatican actively encouraged local bishops to hide the misdeeds. Those documents deal more with issues like the defrocking of the priests concerned and the Vatican responses amount to suggestions to slow down rather than speed up the handling of the cases.
Thatâ€™s serious enough, to be sure, but itâ€™s not proof the Vatican encouraged a cover up â€“ and the Vatican has seized on that as proof it did nothing of the sort. But anyone familiar with the Roman Catholic Church knows it has a culture of secrecy shrouding anything that might discredit it. Even alcoholism among priests, a real problem which is serious but nowhere near as shocking as child sexual abuse, was also long hushed up â€śto avoid giving scandalâ€ť. Bishops who asked the Vatican for advice on how to deal with a predator priest didnâ€™t have to be told they werenâ€™t supposed to announce it from the pulpit or go blabbing about it to the local police chief or newspaper. If you belong to an elite club, you donâ€™t want to show you donâ€™t understand the rules.
Itâ€™s also interesting to see that Fr. Federico Lombardi, who as head of the Vatican press office functions as its spokesman, indirectly confirmed the letterâ€™s contents by not challenging its veracity or countering any of the statements in it. Instead, he held it up as an example of what was wrong at the Vatican before the abuse cases were all directed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzingerâ€™s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in May 2001:
â€śThis document is confirmation of how opportune it was to centralize treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to guarantee a rigorous and coherent treatment, as in fact happened with the documents approved by the pope in 2001.â€ť
Thereâ€™s a hole in this argument â€“ Castrillon Hoyosâ€™s letter was sent in September, about four months after the centralization under Cardinal Ratzinger that he mentioned. Clearly there were still some free electrons spinning around the Curia. This indirect confirmation also leads to the question of whether other such cheer-leading letters are lying around in the archives waiting to be unearthed. Castrillon Hoyos is a staunchly orthodox cardinal and old school Curia official who was in the forefront of restoring the old Latin Mass to more frequent use and reintegrating the four excommunicated bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) despite opposition from other bishops (especially in France) and the Holocaust-denying views of one of them, Richard Williamson. Although his name has not been in the scandal spotlight up until now, it no Vatican watcher would be surprised to hear he staunchly defended priests against any accusations of wrongdoing.
Still, the sheer arrogance and explicitness of this letter does take the breath away. Itâ€™s hard to believe that Cardinal Ratzinger ever wrote anything like this and the spotlight that victims groups and their lawyers have shone on him may be partly misdirected. The real â€śsmoking gunsâ€ť may be in any paper trail that Castrillon Hoyos left behind before (and apparently at least slightly after) the future pope took charge of the most explosive cases.
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