It's extraordinary how much gibberish has been written in the aftermath of the John Paul's death and the election of his successor. Take this article, for example, plucked from today's Observer. It takes all of, oh, six sentences before launching into this delight: 'Catholicism is attractively unambiguous about sins. Some are too grave ever to be forgiven.'
Really? Which ones? The best I can do is 'blasphemy against the Holy Spirit', but even that's not quite as unforgivable as it seems. After all, God's mercy is potentially infinite, isn't it? The Catechism's pretty clear on that, and the Church has long taught that when Jesus spoke of blasphemy against the spirit he must have meant a final impenitence, a defiance of God's will even in death. In other words, sins are only unforgivable - in the sense that God would choose not to forgive them, only if we reject their forgiveness.
I know, it's complicated. My point, though, was that yer man didn't know what he was talking about, which rather destroyed the credibility of his thesis.
And it's with that sole consolatory thought that I read in today's same Observer that:
'Pope Benedict XVI faced claims last night he had 'obstructed justice' after it emerged he issued an order ensuring the church's investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret. The order was made in a confidential letter, obtained by The Observer, which was sent to every Catholic bishop in May 2001. It asserted the church's right to hold its inquiries behind closed doors and keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood.'
The article makes for grim reading, while the letter is just painful, since unless you're a canon lawyer I don't see how you could make head nor tail out of it.
It's funny that the Observer should be announcing this as a proud exclusive, since the letter's apparently been floating about online for a good year-and-a-half now. But then, this is hardly the first time they've made such claims. Similar accusations were made back in the summer of 2003 about a 1963 letter, discovered by the same lawyer who discovered this one - notice a pattern there? Back then the Observer acted as though it had an exclusive on its hands, though the story had been reported in the American media a couple of months earlier, and even so, on closer inspection the scandalous letter turned out to have been a mere storm in a tea cup. Is this new one the same, though, that's the question?
The key bits seem to be, as far as I can see, the following:
' The more grave delicts [a delict's a deliberate wrong] both in the celebration of the sacraments and against morals reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are:
... -A delict against morals, namely: the delict committed by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor below the age of 18 years.
Only these delicts, which are indicated above with their definition, are reserved to the apostolic tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
As often as an ordinary [that's a church official] or hierarch [a bishop or archbishop] has at least probable knowledge of a reserved delict, after he has carried out the preliminary investigation he is to indicate it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which unless it calls the case to itself because of special circumstances of things, after transmitting appropriate norms, orders the ordinary or hierarch to proceed ahead through his own tribunal. The right of appealing against a sentence of the first instance, whether on the part of the party or the party's legal representative, or on the part of the promoter of justice, solely remains valid only to the supreme tribunal of this congregation.
It must be noted that the criminal action on delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is extinguished by a prescription of 10 years.(11) The prescription runs according to the universal and common law;(12) however, in the delict perpetrated with a minor by a cleric, the prescription begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age.'
What does this mean? Your guess is probably as good as mine. Daniel Shea, the lawyer who discovered it, argues that it's a way of hushing things up, of blocking lower ranking clergy from reporting crimes to the police, and of ensuring that nobody even discusses such crimes until ten years after they've happened, or until ten years after victims of child abuse have become adults.
I'm not sure. I'm no canon lawyer, but I'd have thought what this meant is that any allegations of abuse should be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which could then choose to deal with it itself, or allow it to be dealt with at the local level. Further, I think, the Congregation would have ten years in which to take action. This should guarantee that the Vatican could step in if the local authorities were making a mess of things, and also that it would retain that right for quite a while. In no sense does the letter even suggest that evidence should be concealed from the police, or indeed that any form of obstruction be brought into play. It deals with such matters as abuse allegations purely a matter of internal discipline, I think, and has nothing to say on how the local authorities should deal with the police or courts.
Okay, you might say, but it doesn't tell them to cooperate, does it? Well, no, but bear in mind that the letter's not just about abuse allegations. Read all the things that are covered by it. They include such matters as 'Direct violation of the sacramental seal' and 'retaining the consecrated species for a sacrilegious purpose'. If the letter was solely about abuse allegations, and it said nothing about cooperating with the secular authorities, then yes, there might be serious grounds for concern. But as it is, I think this is fine.
Actually, if my reading of it is right - and I shall be asking around - then it strikes me that this is a good thing, rather better than allowing blunderers like Bernard Law to shunt paedophile priests around from parish to parish. These regulations would basically allow the Vatican to say 'You're screwing up. We're going to have to take over.'
I think there are grounds for hope on this. Just a year or so back the then Cardinal Ratzinger reopened the case of Father Maciel, a friend of John Paul II and the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who'd been accused a few years previously. It seems that since 2001, when Ratzinger's office took direct control of dealing with this problem, it's become far more aware of the scale and depth of the abuse crisis.
According to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, the new Pope is determined to back episcopal attempts to defeat the problem in America, and actively supports the American bishops' recent attempts to deal with paedophile priests.
Again, remember Benedict's meditation on the Ninth Station of the Cross when he stood in for John Paul on Good Friday just a month or so back:
''Should we not also think of how much Christ suffers in his own Church? How often is the holy sacrament of his Presence abused, how often must he enter empty and evil hearts! How often do we celebrate only ourselves, without even realizing that he is there! How often is his Word twisted and misused! What little faith is present behind so many theories, so many empty words! How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!'
I have a feeling the Observer has got it wrong. It's my paper of choice on Sunday, but still, sometimes even Homer nods.