There’s not much room
for doubt about whether the Catholic Church’s attitude towards reporting sex
abuse to civil authorities has changed after reading a
2001 letter from the former prefect
of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy. Colombian Cardinal Dario
Castrillón Hoyos congratulated a French bishop for not reporting an abuser
priest to the police. He wrote to Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux, in
France:

“I rejoice to
have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and all the
others bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his
sons, a priest.”

The case of Bishop Pican was
an extraordinary one — the first time in modern French history that a bishop
had been in the dock for a crime. A priest of his diocese, Fr René Bissey, was
convicted and sentenced to 18 years in jail in October 2000 for sexual abuse of
11 boys between 1989 and 1996. Bishop Pican felt that he was obliged not to
turn the priest in because of a special relationship of confidentiality which
existed between him and his priests. At his trial he told the court that if it
had happened again:

“I would encourage him to give himself in.
I would involve myself more personally in the case. But I am overwhelmed by the
number of people who choose to confide in me, and they can do it because they
know I have never turned anyone in.”

He received a suspended sentence of 3
months and retired last month from his diocese.

The text of the Cardinal’s letter was
published in the French Catholic publication Golias.
(For the text of the letter, click here.) But rather than defending or “nuancing” his words, a Vatican press release,
says Vatican specialist John Allen,  “suggests that Castrillón Hoyos was part of the problem which
then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, eventually solved”. The
press release said:

“This document
is another confirmation of how timely was the unification of the treatment of
cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of members of the clergy under the
competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

The Church has made much clearer in recent
times that bishops are not to shield priests from the law. In
a document published this week
, the Vatican stressed that bishops should cooperate
with legal requirements about reporting allegations of abuse to the civil
authorities: “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate
authorities should always be followed.”

Although the media is sure to claim that
Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos was merely trying to protect the reputation of the
Church, the text of the letter suggests that this was not the problem. He did
not say that the civil law should not punish a priest, but that a bishop should
not denounce him. No doubt the subtle difference will be lost in the thickets
of “I told you so”.

Nothing could illustrate the changed
atmosphere within the Church than the
swift action taken by the Archbishop of Denver
, Charles Chaput, this week about
an allegation of abuse which had taken place more than 35 years ago. The
allegation landed on desk on April 7 and the next day Fr Mel Thompson was
relieved of his priestly faculties and duties. Fr Thompson had never been
accused of anything similar before and maintains his innocence. 

“Prompt
action is painful for the whole local Church, but it’s a necessary course to
protect people’s trust in their parish and in the archdiocese. In this case, and
in any other such case that may occur in the future, we follow diocesan and
national policies that exist to serve the safety of our people, and to respect
the suffering and dignity of victims. These priorities are vitally important,
and they will not change.”

 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.