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Secrets of the Vatican

Glimpses Behind the Purple Curtain

Vatican officials have procedures to keep the Roman Catholic Church’s worst secrets secure, even when the Pope dies.

St. Peter's BasilicaOF ALL the vexing questions surrounding the widespread and on-going clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps the ones involving the Pope are among those most begging for an answer. For such a centralized, authoritarian organization headed by one single man, the Pope, the key Watergate-type question of “what did he know and when did he know it?” is crucial to any understanding of the full dimensions of the crisis.

The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of policing its own, however poorly it may have done the job. The hierarchy fought hard for the privilege as soon as Christianity was first legalized by the Roman Empire, and has guarded it jealously ever since. During the Middle Ages, in most countries, clerics were to be tried in ecclesiastical courts, and if found guilty, sent to ecclesiastical prisons run by the Inquisition.

This is the origin of the phrase “benefit of clergy” – not for the good of other prisoners, but for any priest or monk apprehended by the sheriff. If a man could prove he was educated by reading Latin from the parish Bible, he was presumed to be a cleric and turned over to the diocesan authorities. Only in cases of flagrant heresy, which was considered treason to the state as well, would a cleric be turned back over or “relaxed” to the secular officials in order to be burnt, so that the actual death sentence would not taint the Church.

The Church thus developed its own elaborate legal system which served as the basis for the Inquisition in its many forms. It also developed its own penitentiary system – monasteries and convents of “strict observance” – which were not just for extremely devout ascetics who enjoyed wearing hairshirts and sleeping on boards, but where convicted priests, monks, nuns and even laypeople could be effectively watched and punished out of the sight of the faithful and the government, all for the good of their souls.

Vatican Secret Archives

In any case, records of clerical hijinks were kept in the secret archives of the diocese, which even now is mandated by Canon Law. [1] The Vatican also has its own Secret Archives (their unashamed, actual name), which are as vast as they are old. Headed by a cardinal like the Vatican Library, another rumored storehouse of secrets, they partially open today to a few approved scholars who are let in only with specific purposes and with permission of the Pope.

It is the most mysterious institution in the papal city, for in its more than thirty miles of shelving are reputed to be the accumulated records of scandals, secrets, and revelations of the most shocking and explosive kind, blithely boxed and filed away with the insouciance born of centuries of silence and discretion.[2] (Emphasis added.)

The Secret Archives are so vast, disorganized, and secret that no one even knows their full extent — one expert claims that there are “only” 24 miles or so of shelves, though the Vatican itself recently admitted that there are "85 linear kilometers (52 miles) of shelves".

She says that there are 135 fondi, or individual archives. These include not only records of papal decrees, chancery business, and the like, but much other material, including the records of prominent papal families, suppressed religious orders and monasteries, and those of nunciatures, or church embassies. Most of this has never been examined, much less indexed and cataloged.

There have been several attempts to create indices by past archivists, but they were incomplete to begin with. The archives have been moved and looted several times during their long history. Most of the medieval records that survived the Babylonian Captivity were lost during the Sack of Rome in the sixteenth century; Napoleon took them to Paris in the eighteenth where many volumes were recycled into butcher paper; and much fell into the hands of the Italian government later on.

Moreover, the paperwork generated by the various curial organizations, while technically belonging to the Secret Archives, remains under the control and often in the possession of the dicastery that produced it. Thus the records of the Inquisition, for example, can only be seen with permission from its successor organization, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, as well as that of the archivists.

Access to the archives is strictly controlled, and the period when records cannot be examined is long, even by institutional standards: everything since Napoleon was judged to be “too recent”, at least in the 1960s.

Could there be truly secret Secret Archives?

The Italian anticlerical party was disappointed in its hope of finding the Secret Archives a repository for records of usurpations, crimes, and sexual perversions. But the question still remains as to whether the Secret Archives exercises internal censorship over its materials. What action is taken by a scriptor, custodian, or prefect when, in the course of his work, he comes across material that is morally or theologically controversial? Has a closed (chiuso) fondo [individual archive] gradually accumulated, the much-talked-of fondo about which nothing is actually known, a closed fondo which is categorically denied by the Archives authorities? This is a question which puzzled me during the long time I spent working in the Secret Archives, and to which I still have not found any answer. My own personal impression is that no such material is destroyed. The men of the Archives have too much sense of the past, too much reverence for scholarship, too much obligation to learning, for that. But such documents may be omitted from the inventories, bound in volumes containing documents of a very different kind, and relegated to some fondo that is closed because of chronological limitation or very seldom consulted.

This happened with the personal letters of Pope Borgia to the little clan of his devoted women, and with the original summary of the process of [the trial of] Giordano Bruno, and may have happened many other times that we do not know about. Such documents may eventually reappear in the future...[3](Emphasis added}

Once in the Vatican, certainly the Secret Archives are central as the final repository of all the reports of all kinds of dirty deeds done by clergy, but as archives, they would not be responsible for dealing with current cases. Still, the Curia is quite protective of its contents — several years ago an approved priest, Fr. Filipo Tamburini, who had worked there for a dozen years, was banned for writing Saints and Sinners, a book about cases from the Secret Archives of erring clergy who lived four or five centuries ago. Truly, Rome holds its secrets most jealously.

Cardinals swear an oath when they first get the red hat to preserve the secrets of the Church. So trying to find out which officials in the Vatican, if any, are dealing with these questions is much like trying to understand the inner workings of the Kremlin in the old days, or, for that matter, who in the US government really knows what about UFOs. To outsiders, such institutions present a blank outer wall and an impenetrable inner maze of arcane titles and unwritten rules, truly Byzantine in its complexity. Glimpses and outright guessing are sometimes the only means of constructing even a hypothetical picture of who or what is involved.

When in Rome

From the organizational chart of the Holy See,[4] the most likely place would seem to be the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which not that long ago was called the Holy Office of the Inquisition. That dicastery, however, seems to be concerned more with keeping theologians under control than sexual perpetrators. However, the recent discovery of the document Crimen Sollicitationes, proves that this is indeed the case. For an analysis, click here.

Other likely Congregations would seem to be ones for the Clergy or the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies for the Apostolic Life (professed religious) or even Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (The Vatican has never gone for short, convenient titles.) These are concerned with “the life, discipline, rights, and duties of the clergy” and members of religious orders while the latter deals with “abuses to the sacred liturgy.”[5, 6] Possibly they might have some jurisdiction, but perhaps the most likely institution to have anything to do with handling these crisis would be one of the Vatican’s three ecclesiastical tribunals: the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Apostolic Signatura, or the Roman Rota.

The Rota deals with big-name divorces, while the Signatura is the “Supreme Court” of the Vatican. That leaves the Apostolic Penitentiary, which, despite its name, is not a prison for erring evangelists, but the oldest tribunal of the Holy See, in charge of granting absolutions, dispensations and other favors. (It also determines indulgences.) The cardinal-prefect in charge, known as the Major (or formerly, Grand) Penitentiary of the Holy Roman Church, “is the only Curia official who remains in power, with the full authority of his office, during the Sede Vacante [the period between popes]. This is so that he may continue to confer necessary pardon and dispensations during the duration of the vacancy. “[He] is also the only cardinal that who may maintain a steady stream of outside contact as the nature of his office requires his continued attention. ‘In the event he dies during Conclave, the conclavists must immediately elect a successor for the duration of the Conclave. The mystery of the mercy of God, which is exercised through the Penitentiary, thus does not suffer interruption.’”[7](Emphasis added.)

Well, isn't that special! It is generally thought that nobody, but nobody, could communicate with the cardinals in Conclave — that being the whole point of it. Indeed, the new rules are full of precautions that those in conclave have no means of communication with the outside world (such as cell phones), or that the Conclave is bugged.

Yet this Cardinal Penitentiary, currently William Wakefield Cardinal Baum, is considered so important to the life of the Church that he alone of all his peers will keep doing his job when the Pope dies, even during Conclave. He even has his own revolving drum dumbwaiter, smaller than the one used to pass food and medicine into the sequestered cardinals, to pass his secret documents through.[8]

In a private communication, May Ying Welsh, a researcher in Rome, took me to task about this. She kindly informed me that many other cardinals retain their offices. “These are the Cardinal Camerlengo, the Cardinal Vicar of the diocese of Rome, the Cardinal ArchPriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sostituto (Chief of Staff) of the Secretariat of State, and the Secretaries of each of the dicasteries of the curia. The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the Church's Supreme Court) and the Tribunal of the Roman Rota also continue their operations. Instead of reporting to the Pope, they all report to the College of Cardinals.” Others, she says, also have contact with the outside, though in all cases it is only in cases of emergency. She dismissed the idea that the rules cited above makes the Apostolic Penitentiary even more significant than the Pope, even though filling his position takes precedence even over the election of a new pontiff.

Ms. Welsh maintains that it is necessary for the Major Penitentiary to be in touch with the outside world in order to be able to forgive those on their deathbeds. There is some sense to this, I must admit. Still the question remains, is the Major Penitentiary, then, the cardinal in charge of maintaining the cover-up?

She also says this about the work of the Cardinal Penitentiary:

“The Major Penitentiary does not have a busy office. His work is extremely limited and mostly involves excommunications reserved to the Holy See. These are considered especially grave crimes. The excommunications reserved to the Holy See fall into 5 categories: 1.) For a Bishop who consecrates a Bishop without permission from the Holy See. . . 2.) For desecration of the Eucharist. 3) For a priest breaking the confidentiality of a confession. 4.) For a priest absolving his accomplice in a sexual sin. 5.) For a person physically attacking the Pope.” [Emphasis added.]

Indeed, these are the provisions of Canon Law. It should be noted that in many cases that have come to light in the current clergy sex scandals, sexually predatory priests have heard the confessions of their victims, to fix the blame on the victim and ensure it stays secret. And of course, desecration of the Eucharist is one of the major points of the Black Mass.

Both these offenses are reserved to Rome. Yet, as far as I have been able to tell, in not a single one of these cases has the Vatican acted publicly to excommunicate the offender. Thus, though the noble goal of silence may be to spare the faithful from scandal, it is a cover-up nonetheless, and the Major Penitentiary remains one of the prime suspects.

Papal paperwork and black magic

A most telling clue that seems to confirm this comes from a journalistic peek through the crack between the basilica’s doors. The following is excerpted from a book called Pontiff, a colorful insider’s view of the Vatican from the last days of Paul VI through the assassination attempt on John Paul II. This scene deals with the Pope’s daily paperwork in July, 1978.

Much of the work near the bottom of the tray requires no more than careful reading and initialing. The Apostolic Penitentiary handles complex problems of conscience:... It also advises the penalties a pope may impose for such a dire crime as a priest saying a black mass. Every year there are a number of such cases; they frighten Paul more than anything else. He regards them as proof the devil is alive and well and hiding inside the Church. Cardinal Giuseppe Paupini [the Major Penitentiary]... is the Vatican’s resident expert on sorcery of all kinds. His work is adjudged so important and urgent that he will be the only cardinal allowed during the next Conclave to remain in contact with his office.[9] (Emphasis added.)

This has some very interesting and horrible implications. At the very least it should be rather disconcerting that the Pope, as part of his day-to-day job, is far more aware of the extent of true evil “hiding inside” the Church than even the most cynical outsiders can even imagine, and takes it very seriously.

Since John Paul II has retained such arrangements for the conclave after him, then it seems that it was no co-incidence that Paul’s point man on clerical black magic was the chief pardoner of the Church. It makes sense that the Major Penitentiary would merit such consideration only if the papacy takes the threat of wicked clergy most seriously indeed and believes constant vigilance and total secrecy are necessary. One may further infer from the language used in the anecdote that this is not a new situation at all, and that such “dire crimes” seem to have grown throughout Paul’s pontificate, at least.

Perhaps it is easy to read too much into all this. But if the current clergy sexual abuse crisis has revealed anything about the Roman Catholic Church, it’s that the hierarchy can and will go to great lengths to hide its dirty laundry. It has millennia of experience, and it just may be covering up even more monstrous secrets than anything revealed so far.


On April 30, 2001 (a noted satanic holiday), Pope John Paul II issued a new document as a result of the numerous new cases of priests accused of serious crimes in the wake of the scandals. The document, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, gives the handling of cases formerly reserved for the pope's own decision over to the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These include "the sexual abuse of minors, crimes concerning the Eucharist, such as the sacrilegious use of the host, and crimes concerning the confessional, such as soliciting sex from someone who has come to a priest for confession." As that dicastery used to be known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition, a Vatican spokesman acknowledged that it was because they had the "experience" necessary.

The trials, of course, would continue to be held in secret. (AP, 3/28/04)

The Secret Archives are now online!

Well, probably not showcasing the "good stuff", but the Vatican's webmasters have put up an extensive website. Here's the link to the English version:

Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum


1. The Code of Canon Law, Canons 486-490. See also The “Ex-Files” Back

2. The Pope Encyclopedia by Matthew Bunson. Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York, 1995, p. 26 Back

3. This quote and the information in the paragraphs preceding comes from The Secret Archives of the Vatican, Maria Luisa Ambrosini with Mary Willis, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1969, pg. 303. Back

4. The information in this section comes from The Church Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman Catholic Church by James-Charles Noonan, Jr., Viking, New York, 1996, p. 65 ff. Back

5. Ibid., p. 73. Back

6. Ibid., p. 69. Back

7. Ibid., p. 75. Back

8.Pontiff by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Doubleday, New York, 1983, p. 75. Back

9. Ibid., p.55 Back

See also The Archives and the Secret Archives Required by Canon Law.

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