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For a Lady Pope

Paedophilia. The Church’s attitude before and during the pontificate of Jean Paul II

The Crimen sollicitationis letter of 1962

In 1962, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, which would later become the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, a secret letter entitled, “The Crime of Soliciting,” to all the bishops.

The document was signed by Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office (it was he who was opposed to the use of contraception in married couples). He talked about the steps to be taken if clerics (priests or bishops) of the Roman Catholic Church were accused of having committed « solicitous acts » (of making sexual advances) to loyal believers during the penitentiary sacrament (confession). He stated that the same steps were also to be taken if clerics were accused of committing acts of homosexuality, paedophilia and zoophilia.

Sexual abuse by clerics on minors are condemned in this document, even if the letter’s title is inappropriate in the sense that it links « the crime of sexual solicitation » to the setting of confession, which is not always the case for paedophilia and never for zoophilia.

The letter states that if a complaint is made, it will be followed up with an enquiry and pocess within the Church.


Much has been made of the secrecy of this letter sent out to the bishops. However we need to realise that it was part of the culture at that time.

As for the secret imposed on all parties present at the ecclesial tribunal, a vow of silence is made, not only by the members of the tribunal, but also by those denouncing the priest, by any eventual witnesses and by the cleric. However there are significant nuances in the penalties foreseen if, hypothetically, the vow of silence isn’t maintained. If the vow of silence is broken by members of the tribunal, they are heavily punished (automatic ex-communication). The accused is also severely punished (suspension a divinis), but those making the accusations and the witnesses only get a warning. The text doesn’t forbid the victim from making a complaint in front of a public tribunal, but they aren’t encouraged to do so.

Finally, we need to remember two things. Firstly, the confession (the sacrament of penitence) is not the appropriate place for a priest to make sexual advances to a potential partner. In these circumstances, it is an unforgivable crime and so the cleric needs to choose other moments or places to act, if such a thing can be said.

Secondly, the Church considers acts of paedophilia as utterly reprehensible. Nothing new about this seeing that, in 1917, canon law had already condemned all acts of sexual abuse committed by clerics towards minors (canon 2359,2), which meant that in 1962, things were very clear on this subject, even if the hierarchy preferred to cover up the crimes.

The De delictis gravioribus letter of May 2001

Such were the number of cases of paedophilia in the 1990s that the Church had no choice but to change its attitude. Prior to this, everything had been dealt with within the dioceses. Under the advice of cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Jean-Paul II decided to centralise the cases in Rome.

On 30th April 2001, Pope Jean-Paul II published the Motu Proprio, (a letter sent out by the Pope under his own initiative) Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela. In this document, the Pope declared that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would judge the « more grave delicts whether against morals or committed in the celebration of the sacraments. » Each time a bishop learnt that a crime had been committed, he was to report it to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after having carried out an initial enquiry.

The Motu Proprio was accompanied by the letter, De delictis gravioribus, which was sent out to the bishops on the 18th of May 2001, by Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Benedicte XVI), prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which the measures to be taken on the “more grave delicts » were laid out.

Concerning the sacraments, other acts considered as serious infractions are: to celebrate mass with ministers from another ecclesiastical community (for example protestants) and to make sexual advances during confession.

The document also lists violations of a moral nature which are not directly linked to the administration of the sacraments, but which are also to be judged by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They include sexual offenses (delict against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue) committed by a cleric (bishop, priest or deacon) on someone under the age of 18.

Up until 2001, the bishops could themselves treat all cases of abuse committed against minors within the Church, without referring the case on to the Roman Curia. The Pope then conferred direct control of « the most serious crimes », including abuse against minors, on to Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. From 2001 onwards, it was therefore Josef Ratzinger, the future Benedicte XVI, who was responsible for centralising all cases of paedophilia in the Vatican.

Criminal action for delicts that come under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is extinguished by prescription after ten years. However, in the delict against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, where sexual abuse is committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen, prescription begins to run from the day on which the minor becomes 18. This letter isn’t about laic penal justice, but rather ecclesiastical justice.

The document is controversial because it stipulates that all cases of abuse against minors fall under pontifical secrecy. The Church wants to treat the problem of paedophilia internally.

The wish to hide acts of paedophilia from civil justice.

The Vatican wanted to treat these affairs as discreetly as possible, avoiding, at whatever cost, the publicity of a bishop denouncing a priest in front of a civil jury. Four months after the letter De delictis gravioribus was sent out, this policy of secrecy was clearly demonstrated.

On the 8th September 2001, Cardinal Hoyos, then prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy and zealous servant to Cardinal Ratzinger, dispatched a confidential message to bishops all around the world in which he congratulated the French bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux for not having denounced a paedophilic priest (Father Rene Bissey) to a French jury. This letter was sent out to “encourage the brothers of the episcopacy in this very delicate matter.”

The paedophilic priest was sentenced to 18 years in prison in October 2000. His 11 victims were very young, aged between 6 and 13. A year later, on the 5th September 2001, the French bishop, Monsignor Pierre Pican, was himself condemned to a three month suspended prison sentence for not having denounced the reprehensible acts committed by Father Bissey to the authorities.

Cardinal Hoyos’s letter showed that the Vatican’s policy on this subject was to hide everything and to refuse to denounce a paedophilic cleric to the authorities. The Roman Curia had thus confirmed the theory that a bishop should do all he can to cover-up and protect a paedophilic priest from the legal authorities.

Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos’s letter is, in fact, stupefying. He wrote to the French Bishop, Monsignor Pican, saying : « I congratulate you for not having denounced a priest to the civil authorities. You acted well and I rejoice in having a colleague in the episcopat who, in the eyes of history and of all the other bishops throughout the world, would have prefered to go to prison rather than denounce his fellow priest. »

In December 2001, the Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, Monsignor Pierre Pican, encouraged without doubt by this letter, showed no regret for his actions and even asked the Father Bissey’s victims for «  a moment of forgivenes. »

In April 2010, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos’s letter was made public by the Golias review.

To sum up, the Church actively dissuaded bishops from denouncing any priest who had committed an act of abuse and even went so far as to congratulate those who hid the facts from the judicial authorities.

The enquiries Jean-Paul II refused to allow

Pope Jean-Paul II (1975-2005) was, to say the least, extremely sensitive about the acts of paedeophilia committed by the Church’s priests.

From the begining of the 90s, it was clear that the situation in the United States was a deeply serious one. There was notably the first, highly mediatised trial of the priest Edward Pipala, condemned for raping a dozen minors and in 1993, the Episcopal Conference of the United States set up a commission to fight against sexual abuse in the Church.

In April 2002, in the United States, the Holy Father declared that : « There is no place in the priesthood and in religious life for anyone who could harm young people. » In spite of this, the Pope showed himself reluctant to deal with accusations against anyone highly placed in the Church, even refusing to allow certain enquiries to take place.

In 1988 , the Pope was made aware of complaints brought against Father Marcial Maciel Dellogado (known as Father Maciel), a Mexican and founder of the Legion of Christ. Father Maciel denied all accusations and the investigation was frozen on the specific demand of Jean-Paul II. In his opinion, the facts were outdated (dating from 1950-1960) and the Legion of Christ was an organisation that had been particularly active in the Church, defending the conservative position on moral ethics (forbidding the use of contraception in marriage, obliging priests to be celibate, etc.)

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the then Vatican Secretary of State, was also opposed to an enquiry being held by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Ratzinger.

Father Maciel died in 2008 and what did we learn in 2009 and 2010? That he had led a double life. He had had affairs with two women and had a daughter by one of them and three sons by the other. On top of that, it appears that he was also a pedophile, a morphine addict and an incestuous father (denounced by both his sons).

And here’s another case that demonstrates Jean-Paul II’s passivity. This time it took place in Austria. In the beginning of the 90s, Cardinal Ratzinger asked for a commission to be set up to investigate complaints against Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër, suspected of sexual abusing seminarians. Once again, Cardinal Angelo Sodano played down the case in front of Jean-Paul II.

We need to wait until March 1995, when an old seminarian revealed in an Austrian magazine that Groër, during his time as a teacher, had had sexual contact with his pupils and that he had forced the seminarian to be his lover for a period of four years. Groër immediately resigned from his role as President of the Austrian Episcopal Conference. The Vatican officially accepted his resignation under the premise of old age and he was replaced by Christoph Schönborn. Monsignor Groër continued to deny everything and took refuge in a monastery until his death in 2003.

In 1998, Monsignor Christoph Schönborn asked the Austrian catholics to pardon the acts committed by Cardinal Groër. In 2010, Cardinal Schönborn even accused Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State from 1991 to 2006, of being opposed,  in 1995, to the creation of a Vatican commission to investigate the behaviour of Cardinal Groër.

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