Church Scandal #3
The Vatican Rightly Reins In American Bishops
By Alicia Colon
May 21, 2002
Originally published in the New York Sun
A priest who had been accused of molesting two teenage boys over 30 years ago, committed suicide at a Catholic psychiatric institute in Maryland on May 17th. We can speculate whether he was guilty or innocent but we’ll never really know the truth about Father Alfred Bietighofer. Was he a homosexual priest who broke his priestly vows and then killed himself when his sins were revealed or was he an innocent man unable to deal with the false allegations and the resulting scandal? We’ll never know but when I read about men like that priest, I understand why the Vatican is issuing statements disapproving the precipitous response of American Bishops to the abuse scandal.
An influential canon lawyer, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, wrote in a Jesuit magazine Civita Cattolica, that the bishops should not so quick to turn over allegations or records of sexual abuse by priests to the authorities. Archbishop Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts said in a recent statement, the American Bishops are responding to, “ an emotional wave of public clamor.”
Everything in America seems to move at triple speed but in the Holy City in Rome, snails rule the roost and the world is watching these two worlds in the Roman Catholic Church collide. Let me end the suspense right now. The Vatican will win. It always has and it always will.
Somehow I get the feeling that the scandalmongers in the mainstream Press are finding out a lot more about the Catholic Church than it bargained for and the more they learn, the less they understand. They are also finding out that the American church is not the ultimate authority over Catholics when it comes to issues of faith and morality. In our free and open society, it is sometimes hard to understand an entity so cloaked in mystery and secrecy.
To the unenlightened, the Vatican and the hierarchy of the church are filled with old men in long black dresses who don’t understand what life is like in the real world. They cover their misdeeds through secrecy like the NYPD allegedly erects its blue wall of silence to protect the brotherhood, so when this scandal erupted it confirmed these worst suspicions.
Yes, the church has deep, dark secrets but who can blame it. It has to deal with a most formidable and cunning enemy and Evil can take many forms. The Church has survived these two thousands years because it never loses sight of the big picture. We, on the other hand, are being asked to do that nearly every day this scandal endures.
The importance of privacy has been sacrosanct in the church’s history since its days in the catacombs. Even today, in other parts of the world, Christians are being persecuted for their faith and while here in America, bishops may feel trusting of civil authorities, the precedent of sharing secret documents with them would be suicidal in others. The Vatican is warning the American bishops not to be so hasty unless one is absolutely sure a crime has been committed. The church does not play by the same rules when it comes to secrets especially those revealed in a confessional.
Not every confession is as closely guarded. A writer to the advice column Dear Abby who confessed to sexual fantasies about his underage stepchild was subsequently reported to the police. Likewise under certain circumstances, some admissions to professionals like attorneys and psychiatrists can sometimes be revealed through legal provisions in the law.
One of the strictest forms of confidentiality occurs with the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and is called the seal of confession. Confession to a priest with the intention of receiving absolution warrants the seal . This seal can never be broken and is protected in the statutes of all the states in varying degrees. In New York State (S.833) it is enacted that a “ clergyman or other minister of any religion shall not be allowed to disclose a confession made to him in his professional character in the course of discipline enjoined by the rules or practice of the religious body to which he belongs”.
While many religions do allow their clergy to reveal a confession in certain circumstances, the Catholic Church forbids it explicitly. Even under the threat of imprisonment, scandal and even death, priests are forbidden to ever break the seal. After the celebration of the Sacrament, the priest regards any information that was communicated as never having occurred. Unless waived by the penitent, the confession is sealed. This is an awesome responsibility for any man so it is not very strange that the Vatican recognizes that a priest has certain rights that need protection as well. It is also not inconceivable that deviant pedophile priests would take advantage of this by confessing their sins to their superior thereby ensuring his silence.
Imagine this scenario. You are a bishop and a woman comes to you with an allegation that a parish priest is molesting her 10-year-old child. Well, that’s simple, because pedophilia is a crime and should be reported to the police. In fact, the woman should go straight to the police but that is not what is happening today. There may indeed be isolated instances where that is occurring but the overwhelming cases that are in today’s headlines involve allegations from 10 to 50 years past. A priest who has been performing his pastoral duties diligently from his superior’s point of view deserves to have allegations against his case treated by the church with caution and deference.
Essentially, the Vatican is telling the American Bishops to treat the priests with more respect than what has been accorded them by the New York Times.
Copyright 2002 by Alicia Colon. Not to be reproduced in any fashion, in whole or in part, without written consent from the author. All rights reserved.