What You Need to Know About De Delictis Gravioribus

In response to my last post, my dad asked:

Thanks for bringing this subject up in your blog. I have been reading news accounts from many sources and concur with your assessment of the situation. The only part of the “scandal” that I don’t have enough information on is the directive that Cardinal Ratzinger wrote for the Church about keeping sexual abuse cases “confidential”. Do you know anything about this directive, or where I can read it? Can “confidential” translate into “enabling” this to continue? Without the context of this directive it seems the media could at least imply this (which they have).

That was the thing that had me worried for a long time, because I was shocked by what I heard it was. Then I read it, and discovered it was nothing like what I’d read it was — in fact, the document may have been one of the best things that the Vatican has done regarding sex abuse cases. The document is the 2001 De Delictis Gravioribus, and here’s what you need to know:

  • DDG should be read as an updating and expanding of Crimen Sollicitationis, the 1962 document governing crimes arising from the confessional. and other grave crimes (including pedophilia and homosexuality commit by priests).
  • DDG deals primarily with crimes against canon law, not civil law. Some of the things mentioned, like pedophilia, are crimes against both, but that’s not the focus of the document at all. Other than pedophilia, all of the things covered are abuses of sacraments: things like Eucharistic desecration, violating the confessional seal, etc.
  • Because an accusation that a priest abused the sacraments or a child is so severe, and because it’s naturally hard for witnesses to openly accuse priests of something so heinous, the canonical trial is kept incredibly secretive. In part, the Church didn’t want to have public trials in which Church members accused priests of violating the confessional seal or consecrating the Eucharist in order to throw it away (two of the crimes specifically addressed). That’s not just a desire to avoid embarassment, it’s also a respect, in many cases, for the confessional seal itself.
  • This secrecy covers only the trial process. So a person who found out about sex abuse (a victim, a parent, a priest, a bishop, etc.) who was also involved in the canonical trial to get the priest stripped of his public ministry can report on the crime itself to the police (and often times, is legally required to), but cannot reveal the canonical trial.
  • In case you’re wondering, grand juries are often bound by similar secrecy for the same reason, as are trials involving sexual abuse of children.
  • Note the obvious: DDG came out in 2001. The abuse we’re primarily talking about was covered up by bad bishops decades previously. There’s no way that they misunderstood a document which hadn’t been written yet.
  • Finally, here’s the horrible irony. DDG was a reminder to bishops to take sex abuse cases seriously. Let’s look at this seriously. Bishop Robert Lynch took over the Diocese of Palm Beach temporarily when the bishop there, Keith Symons, admitted to molesting five boys in three different parishes. Lynch’s response to the scandal: “We almost have a hang-up with sex. We expect people to live up to such a high ideal of sexual conduct and we don’t allow any failure.” That’s shocking stupidity and moral callousness. Not molesting kids is a “high ideal” that we shouldn’t expect to reach all the time? On the other hand, Ratzinger is putting the same thing Lynch wrote off as a hang-up in the same category as Eucharistic desecration in a Vatican document on the worst crimes a priest can be accused of. And Ratzinger is the one who gets kicked around for his response?

Here’s what Crimen Sollicitationis said regarding confidentiality:

Since, however, in dealing with these causes, more than usual care and concern must be shown that they be treated with the utmost confidentiality, and that, once decided and the decision executed, they are covered by permanent silence (Instruction of the Holy Office, 20 February 1867, No. 14), all those persons in any way associated with the tribunal, or knowledgeable of these matters by reason of their office, are bound to observe inviolably the strictest confidentiality, commonly known as the secret of the Holy Office, in all things and with all persons, under pain of incurring automatic excommunication, ipso facto and undeclared, reserved to the sole person of the Supreme Pontiff, excluding even the Sacred Penitentiary.

Here’s what De Delictis Gravioribus said:

All tribunals of the Latin church and the Eastern Catholic churches are bound to observe the canons on delicts and penalties, and also on the penal process of both codes respectively, together with the special norms which are transmitted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for an individual case and which are to be executed entirely. Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret.

It’s that single sentence which has lead people to claim that this document is about covering up the crime. Riiiight. Oh, and here’s Ratzinger explaining why DDG was needed:

At approximately the same time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, through an ad hoc commission established, devoted itself to a diligent study of the canons on delicts both of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches in order to determine “more grave delicts both against morals and in the celebration of the sacraments” and in order to make special procedural norms “to declare or impose canonical sanctions,” because the instruction Crimen Sollicitationis, issued by the supreme sacred Congregation of the Holy Office on March 16, 1962, in force until now, was to be reviewed when the new canonical codes were promulgated.

In other words, DDG was an attempt to update Crimen Sollicitationis for the revised Code of Canon Law… not to engineer a cover-up. Anyone who read the document would know this. Two final things. First, here’s Fr. Lombardi summarizing the alleged confusion better than I’ve seen anyone else do:

In the ambit of canon law, the crime of the sexual abuse of minors has always been considered as one of the most serious of all, and canonical norms have constantly reaffirmed this, in particular the 2001 Letter ‘De delictis gravioribus’, sometimes improperly cited as the cause of a ‘culture of silence’. Those who know and understand its contents, are aware that it was a decisive signal to remind the episcopate of the seriousness of the problem, as well as a real incentive to draw up operational guidelines to face it.

Exactly. It’s part of the solution, not the problem. And finally, here’s what one Catholic cleric had to say about relying on civil trials instead of canonical ones:

How can any one of you with a case against another dare to bring it to the
unjust for judgment instead of to the holy ones? Do you not know that the
holy ones will judge the world? If the world is to be judged by you, are you
unqualified for the lowest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge
angels? Then why not everyday matters? If, therefore, you have courts for
everyday matters, do you seat as judges people of no standing in the
church? I say this to shame you. Can it be that there is not one among you
wise enough to be able to settle a case between brothers? But rather brother
goes to court against brother, and that before unbelievers? Now indeed
(then) it is, in any case, a failure on your part that you have lawsuits against
one another. Why not rather put up with injustice? Why not rather let yourselves
be cheated?

That’s 1 Corinthians 6:1-7. Shall we accuse St. Paul of orchestrating a cover-up as well? After all, of all the documents we’ve looked at, 1 Corinthians is the only one which specifically advises against relying on civil courts!

1 Comment

  1. I was very pleased with your citation of 1 Corinthians. Making me smile at my computer. I was actually hoping someone would bring up the great saint.

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