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The “Ex-Files”

Secrets of the Catholic Church

The clergy sexual abuse crisis shows that Roman Catholic Church well knows how to keep its dirty secrets


Anyone who has watched political scandals unfold from Watergate on knows how important the paper trail can be. While physical evidence, such as DNA, may make or break an individual criminal case, it is usually documentation that is the key to proving that more than one person in an institution was involved. In other words, that there was a conspiracy.

In the ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, where the events under dispute are for the most part decades old and many of the principals are dead, oftentimes paperwork is all there is in the way of evidence. Many a case has turned on the question of whether any documentation of the abuse or a cover-up can be found.


Lying priests

For one thing, certain doctrines, such as that of mental reservation, give individual clergy members the “right” to equivocate or even outright lie, even under oath — if it be, by any means of rationalization, for the greater good of the Church. And equivocate they have, in ways that could generously be described as “Clintonesque.”

In one case, for instance, a priest claimed he did not really have sex with a young girl — it was only a “reserved embrace” since he never attained orgasm. Technical theological terms, especially in Latin, may be used to baffle outsiders. “In res turpis” is supposedly the general term for sexual abuse, for example. Indeed, there is even rumored that a book exists which defines such terms, what they actually mean, and how they are to be used.

Misdirection, euphemisms, and ambiguity are often resorted to: names may be be misspelled in replies to requests for information from religious-run institutions or clerics misidentified with others bearing similar names. Both these things happened during my own research; honest mistakes, perhaps, but who knows?

Even the Church’s public records, such as the Official Catholic Directory, are not always straightforward. Published every year, the OCD gives data on all the 50,000 or so clergy in the United States. However, clerical perpetrators who have been caught are often said to be “on leave,” “inactive,” or “on assignment outside the diocese,” if, for instance, they are in “treatment” somewhere. Yet the OCD can be an important guide in tracking a cleric’s career through the years, as short assignments and transfers to remote locations may indicate trouble.

Copies of this invaluable reference may be hard to locate — although Catholic colleges and other institutions are most likely to have copies, they also tend to restrict access and even remove them from the shelves if they discover interested parties, such as survivors, are poking about. Large public or secular university libraries may be the best place to look.

And of course, a priest can never, ever reveal anything heard under the seal of confession. This has provided a convenient way out for an untold number of clerics. Indeed, in the deposition of former-Archbishop Sanchez, it was revealed that the “forcible rape of a child,” for instance, is far less a sin for a priest to commit than breaking the seal of confession by reporting it to his religious superiors, the police or the child’s parents, even though required by law, and even if absolution is denied. Any priest can forgive anyone, including another priest, for murder, rape, or virtually any other heinous crime, and then must keep it secret forever. Reveal something heard in the confessional, however, and one must answer to the Pope himself.

However, any institution as large as the Catholic Church must have clearly-established procedures and rules which specify offenses and their penalties. The Church’s rules are called Canon Law, which has developed through the centuries from the intense interplay between legal theories based on Roman imperial law, theology, papal politics, and the reality of the sins of individual human beings. Every rule has a specific historical reason for its existence, based on some circumstance or other.

Canon Law tells exactly how and where such documentary evidence of clerical malfeasance must be kept. For certainly, a bureaucracy as vast and as old as the Church’s must document everything in order to maintain even minimal control and continuity. Such a system tries to cover all possibilities, and the answers must be somewhere in that maze; the question is where.


Personnel Files

The diocesan personnel files are an obvious place to start looking but they are usually incomplete and out of date. Even if an attorney or other outsider could gain access, rarely do any smoking guns seem to turn up. The reasons are manifold.

For one thing, in many dioceses, access is not as rigorously controlled as it might be, or the filing system may be neglected or confused. For another, it is conceivable that when allegations are made, fearful or religious prelates might hold midnight shredding parties like those held by Ollie North during the Iran-Contra affair, to dispose of the potential embarrassment — particularly of their own involvement or inaction.

And any notice of interest can put the perpetrators or their enabling friends on alert. I speak from personal experience here. When I finally got hold of my perpetrator’s file, vital documents that should have been there, such as his baptismal and ordination records, were gone. Stretches of years were missing, and in other sections the chronological order was reversed or confused, indicating that it had been thoroughly weeded, not only once, but probably several times. Near the very front of the file was a copy of a classified ad seeking other victims that I had placed in the newspaper, sent in by one of the perp’s fellow priests.

Unfortunately, the absence of a paper trail while suspicious proves nothing. In any case, documents that are detrimental to people’s careers are not usually placed in open files.


Obtaining Federal Assistance

What about help from the US government? Requests made under the Freedom of Information Act for data is usually more miss than hit, as any UFO researcher can testify. Though any citizen can make a request (it does not matter if one is in litigation or not), information given out about anyone are limited by security concerns (often concerning how the information was gathered) and the Privacy Act. It helps if one can claim a good reason for suspecting the information should be there.

Though not so complex as to require a lawyer’s assistance, it is a good idea to thoroughly research the FOIA process first in order to make sure one’s request is not rejected on a technicality. One needs to submit written permission from the person in question, or proof that he/she has died. It can easily take months to get any reply at all, and since requests are often rejected, it may be necessary to appeal at least once.

Another large limitation on FOIA requests is the paucity of records. For instance, despite its high-tech image, the FBI still maintains its old files separately in individual field offices on index cards. They are not cross-referenced, so one office’s records or lack thereof does not mean that another office might or might not have others. The only way around this is to file requests with all the field offices involved.

Not only that, but these card files list only whatever crimes the FBI was mandated to investigate at the time the cards were made. Since the FBI was not told to investigate child sexual abuse until the 1980s and then only under certain conditions, for many of the older cases, there may be no records, even if there was a documented inquiry to the G-men (again, as there was in my case). Unless the clerical perpetrator was also a bank robber, kidnapper or Commie spy, there is probably nothing there.


Requirements of Canon Law

At least the government is sometimes willing or required to look. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, has a long tradition of secrecy, jealously guarding its scandals from outsiders. Yet, the hierarchy needs information on the rotten apples in the barrel too. So where then are the records of misconduct kept?

In at least one case, it was revealed that a bishop held “confidential files” in his office that he alone was supposed to have access to. However, this was not the most secure location either, as correspondence disappeared from there as well. It is from just such instances that Canon Law evolved its rules for the keeping of records.

Canon Law mandates archives on several levels. First there are the parish archives, which contain the registers of baptisms, marriages, deaths and confirmations “together with episcopal letters and other documents which it may be necessary or useful to preserve.” (Can. 535 §4) These are to be maintained by the pastor and are open to inspection by the bishop or his representative. Copies of inventories and other items are to be kept at the next level, in the diocesan archives.

The relationship between the personnel files and the diocesan or curial archives is rather obscure, but they do seem to be different entities. The diocesan archives are under the care of the chancellor, vice-chancellor and staff notaries, all of whom serve at the pleasure of the bishop. They must be “of unblemished reputation and above suspicion. In cases which could involve the reputation of a priest, the notary must be a priest.” (Can. 483 §2, emphasis added)

How marvelously convenient! This guarantees that all the most sensitive documents are handled only by trusted male clerics. Any woman who becomes chancellor or vice-chancellor, however progressive such a promotion might appear, is still kept completely out of the loop.

The chancellor and notaries write the documents, sign them, noting date, time and place, and “while observing all that must be observed, showing acts from the archives to those who lawfully request them.” (Can 484 1°) This is peculiar phrasing, to say the least. Just what is “all that must be observed” — the code of silence, perhaps?

Canon Law goes on to demand that all documents be kept with “the greatest of care.” In each diocesan curia, the archive is to be kept in a “safe place” under lock and key, along with a catalog of documents kept there and a short synopsis of each. Only the bishop and chancellor are to have the key and no one may enter without either the bishop’s or the both the chancellor and vicar’s permission.

Persons concerned (i.e., accused priests, not their accusers) have the right to receive copies of documents “which are of their own nature public and which concern their own personal status.” But it is not permitted to remove any document except for a short time. (Can. 486-8) In addition, there is also supposed to be an historical archive of some kind. (Can. 491 §2)


The Secret Archives

And that’s just for the ordinary archives. Even this amount of security is not deemed satisfactory for truly sensitive matters. Canon Law states: “There is also to be a secret archive, or at least in the ordinary archive there is to be a safe or cabinet, which is securely closed and bolted and which cannot be removed. In this archive, documents which are to be kept under secrecy are to be most carefully guarded.

“Each year, documents of criminal cases concerning moral matters are to be destroyed whenever the guilty parties have died, or ten years have elapse since a condemnatory sentence concluded the affair. A short summary of the facts is to be kept, together with the text of the definitive judgment.” (Can. 489, emphasis mine)

Only the bishop is to have the key to the secret archive, though the diocesan administrator may open it personally when the see is vacant “in a case of real necessity.” (Can. 490) Thus at the heart of every single diocese is a potential time bomb, an appendix where every sordid crime committed by apprehended clergy festers. Even when the perpetrators are dead and buried, Canon Law says that there still should be some record of what they were caught doing.


All Roads Lead to Rome

Unfortunately, there is no Freedom of Information Act for Roman Catholics. One lawyer who has handled many of these cases told me confidentially that sometimes the Church will produce documents they claim are from the secret archives and at other times deny that such archives exist. Since clerics alone have access, one would have to take their word for it. In any case, he said, their claims are not to be believed, and the documents produced are usually worthless.

Indeed, Canon Law seems to be fairly useless in regard to criminal priests. Their rights are protected in struggles with their superiors. And it is so difficult for bishops to weed out the bad apples, that Fr. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who worked on the infamous Rudy Kos cases, has publicly advised victims and their families to not even bother trying to use Canon Law as a remedy.

It should be noted that only a handful of the most notorious clerical perpetrators — men like Gauthe, Kos, Porter, and Holley — have ever been forcibly laicized. No priestly predator in modern times has ever been excommunicated.

Bishops will go to great lengths to protect their secrets. In one case several years ago, it was revealed that the bishop sought to have the incriminating documents sent to the Vatican in a diplomatic pouch to protect them from prosecutors.

In Rome, the records would be as safe from prying eyes as the Pope and Curia can make them, buried deep in the bowels of the Vatican Secret Archives (their actual name). For the Holy See is a sovereign state recognized by the US, and is under no obligation to produce records for anyone.

Now, thanks to the recent discovery of secret instructions written in 1962 by the Holy Office — formerly known as the Holy Inquisition — the mechanism of the cover-up is revealed, and discussed in My Excommunication.


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