Embarrassing Vatican letter hailing bishop who hid predator priest

April 15, 2010
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Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos

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 “smoking gun” 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 Darío Castrillón Hoyos congratulating (yes, congratulating!) a bishop for not only hiding a self-confessed serial abuser but earning himself a criminal sentence for doing so. For more on the 2001 case, click here.

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 “spiritual paternity” 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.

My news story on the letter translates the main (and quite explicit) quotes from the French original. The Golias story on it (in French) is here – and its PDF copy of the letter is here.

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French Bishop Pierre Pican leaves court in Caen, September 4, 2001/Stringer

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 “smoking gun” 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.

That’s serious enough, to be sure, but it’s not proof the Vatican encouraged a cover up – 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 “to avoid giving scandal”. Bishops who asked the Vatican for advice on how to deal with a predator priest didn’t have to be told they weren’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 don’t want to show you don’t understand the rules.

It’s also interesting to see that Fr. Federico Lombardi, who as head of the Vatican press office functions as its spokesman, indirectly confirmed the letter’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 Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in May 2001:

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Fr. Federico Lombardi

“This document is confirmation of how opportune it was to centralise treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to guarantee a rigourous and coherent treatment, as in fact happened with the documents approved by the pope in 2001.”

There’s a hole in this argument – Castrillon Hoyos’s letter was sent in September, about four months after the centralisation 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 cheerleading 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. It’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 “smoking guns” 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.

What do you think about this latest embarrassment for the Vatican?

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