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1962 Vatican document: Keep sex misconduct allegations secret

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- A 1962 Vatican document -- kept in secret archives -- instructed dioceses all over the world to keep sexual misconduct in the church under wraps.

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that using the document as a "smoking gun" to prove the existence of a "'ground plan' for 'covering up' the crime of sexual abuse of minors by clerics" is off-base. The church's guidance on the issue was revamped in 1983, the bishops said.

Issued on March 16, 1962, the document primarily refers to cases involving confession. It says, if a priest tries to solicit sex from someone who is trying to give their confession, then the allegation against the priest should be "pursued in a most secretive way ... under penalty of excommunication."

That applied to all parties involved.

Church leaders caution that the document had no bearing on civil or criminal law and was superseded by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which "treats the sexual abuse of a minor (and solicitation of a penitent by confessor) as criminal behavior, which may be punished by dismissal from the clerical state."

Carmen Durso, an attorney representing several victims allegedly sexually abused by priests, calls the document a blueprint for how to cover up misconduct.

"They were marching orders to each and every one of these priests and supervisors saying to them when you get information about this type of activity, you can keep it secret," Durso told CNN.

CNN obtained the document Thursday and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops confirmed its authenticity.

However, Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the conference, said the document has been taken out of context.

"That document was very much in the background and it did not really or was not really an effective force in most cases in the last 20 years," Maniscalco said.

Ray Flynn, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said he doesn't believe it was any part of a massive cover-up because 195 U.S. bishops and hundreds more worldwide would have had to see the document and if the contents were that explosive someone would have leaked it earlier.

He also hinted that people were viewing the document with a financial goal in mind.

"If you were to sue a parish or a diocese that really doesn't have very much money -- the church services the poor -- and you know there is a limit to the amount of money you could get, you would look for the a bigger fish to go after. You wouldn't go after the minnows, you'd want to get the whale," Flynn said.

"If you could reach the Vatican, involving them in some sort of massive cover-up, you would have yourself quite a lawsuit and you'd be well off. You'd get more money than you could ever imagine spending," he said.

The Catholic Church has been rocked in recent years amid accusations of covering up sexual abuse cases involving priests. Dioceses have paid out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits involving alleged sexual misconduct by priests.

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