Catholic Church denies bishops were ordered to cover up sex abuse claims

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The Independent Online

The Roman Catholic Church has strongly denied that a Latin document sent to all bishops 40 years ago imposed a secret code for dealing with sexual abuse by priests that stopped victims seeking redress outside the Church. According to the document, priests who spoke out were to be threatened with excommunication.

The Vatican document from 1962, carrying the seal of Pope John XXIII, was discovered by a German priest with close links to the Vatican and leaked to a lawyer in Texas, Daniel Shea, who acts for victims of sexual abuse by priests.

The document is entitled "Instructions on proceeding in case of solicitation". In Vatican jargon, "solicitation" means an attempt by a priest during confession to procure sexual favours from the person who is confessing.

But the instruction makes clear that it relates not only to what takes place in the confessional box but also outside it. "The crime of solicitation," it says, takes place either "in the act of sacramental confession", "or [in a place] other than that [usually] designated for the hearing of confessions or [in a place] chosen for the simulated purpose of hearing a confession ... "

The document reveals an obsession with secrecy. The instruction itself is to be "diligently stored in the secret archives of the Curia [the Vatican] as strictly confidential. Nor is it to be published or added to with any commentaries." Cases in which a "penitent" has been provoked into "impure and obscene matters", including the "worst crime", namely an obscene act performed by a priest with "young people of either sex or with brute animals" must be pursued by bishops "in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone is to observe the strictest secrecy ... under penalty of excommunication".

Victims were to be compelled to take an oath of secrecy when making a complaint. Cases were to be heard by secret church courts in front of a single judge where possible, also in the cause of secrecy.

Lawyers acting for victims of sexual abuse by priests were in no doubt as to the document's importance. Mr Shea said: "It proves there was an international conspiracy by the Church to hush up sexual abuse issues. It is a devious attempt to conceal criminal conduct and it is a blueprint for deception and concealment." He added: "I'm saying, my God, what happened to the Catholic Church?" He said the Vatican document could be the "smoking gun" to prove that every Catholic diocese in the world was under direct orders to keep allegations of sexual abuse a secret.

The document explained "how it is that you can have an internal church trial, in which you can never convict a priest. The thing is rigged ... they understand fully that this is criminal conduct, yet they are hiding it by conducting secret church trials", he said.

Richard Scorer, a British lawyer acting for British victims of abuse, told The Observer yesterday: "This document appears to prove [that] the Catholic Church systematically covered up abuse."

The Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States said: "Those making this claim ... are taking the document entirely out of context and therefore distorting it completely." It added that the document "has no bearing on civil law. It does not forbid the civil reporting of civil crimes."

The Catholic Church has been inundated by lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests, and at least one diocese in America has applied for protective bankruptcy to survive. The 1962 "instruction" may now encourage lawyers to launch prosecutions against the Vatican itself.

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