Pontifical Secrets, the Catholic Church, and the Sexual Abuse of Children

mosaicThe Catholic Church is unique among the world’s religions.  It is headed by a man whose proclamations are deemed infallible if he says so.  The Vatican headquarters of the Church is a sovereign civil state that has diplomatic relations with other countries.  The Church has a codified system of law that regulates the spiritual as well as the secular life of its members, including the clergy.

Church law, or canon law, has existed for centuries and has been changed many times by the Pope and his collaborators.  These changes often reflect developments in worship or doctrine.  But canon law has also changed in how clergy are punished when they abuse children.  Starting before the 12th century, canon law provided that priests who abused children were stripped of their priesthood and handed over to civil authorities.  In 1917, a revision of canon law removed this provision.  Priests were no longer automatically “defrocked” for abusing children.  And the Church no longer automatically turned them over to civil authorities.

In 1922, Pope Pius XI went further and imposed a “silence” on all matters concerning the abuse of children.  Subsequent popes have strengthened this “silence” and expanded it to include the abuse of those who are disabled. Popes Benedict and John Paul II contributed to what is now euphemistically called the “pontifical secret.”

It is impossible to underestimate the effect the pontifical secret has had on the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.  Since the early part of the 20th century, it has become part of the institutional mindset that had led directly to the cover-up of sexual abuse.

In 2016, the pontifical secret is still in force.  Right now, the former Archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul, John Nienstedt, is under investigation for his role in covering up many sexual abuse allegations.  He allegedly knew his priest friend had abused a close family friend, but turned a blind eye.  At the time the abuse occurred, Nienstedt was a young priest with a bright future and ambitions of climbing the clerical ranks.

Nienstedt is one of many Catholic priests and bishops who ignored abuse to save their church careers.  If you want to get ahead in the Catholic Church, you don’t talk about sexual abuse and you don’t want a reputation as a whistleblower.

Dumas Law Group has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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