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Vatican Secret Documents Uncovered

Aired August 7, 2003 - 20:20   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: CNN has confirmed reports about secret Vatican documents describing how Catholic diocese around the world should handle sex abuse allegations against priests. But is a 40- year-old document really relevant to the current crisis in the church over its handling of sexual abuse?
John Allen, a Vatican correspondent for "The National Catholic Reporter," joins us from Rome to examine this issue.

Welcome, John.

First of all, what do these documents reveal?

JOHN ALLEN, "THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER": Well, Paula, as you said, this is a document that dates to 1962, put out by the -- what was then called the Holy Office, today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has the responsibility for these sex abuse cases.

Essentially, it lays out a set of procedures for handling accusations, principally that a priest abused the confessional to proposition someone sexually, although the document also applies to other acts of sex abuse. It lays out a process for investigating these charges and then for taking them to trial inside the church, if it seems warranted.

ZAHN: And what is the Vatican reaction to release of these documents?

ALLEN: Well, the Vatican officially hasn't said anything. And, unofficially, what they're saying -- and, as a legal matter, they're right -- is that these documents don't have anything to do with the question of whether or not the church cooperated with civil or criminal investigations.

I think the confusion comes from the fact that, when a priest is accused of a crime, one of three processes, and sometimes all three, can be triggered. The first is an internal disciplinary process in the church, which can end up with a priest being defrocked, that is, kicked out of the priest hood. A second is a criminal investigation, which can end with him going to jail. Third is a civil process, which can trigger a lawsuit, leading to the church having to pay money to compensate for the damages.

This document deals only with that first process, that is, the church's own internal discipline. I think the clearest way to say it would be this, that, even under the terms of this document, if a bishop in 1962 or any time after that wanted to report a charge against a priest to the police, there is nothing in this document that would have prevented him from doing so.

ZAHN: All right, John, if you wouldn't mind standing by, I want to bring William Donohue into the discussion, who is the president of the Catholic League.

I see you're nodding your head in agreement.

So, are you saying, the folks out here hearing about this report for the first time, who have the perception that this document basically allowed priests to be above a law, got it wrong here?

WILLIAM DONOHUE, PRESIDENT, CATHOLIC LEAGUE: I'm saying that this is worse than anything that "The New York Times" did with Jayson Blair, that CBS is guilty of defaming the Catholic Church. I have the document here.

It doesn't deal with a cover-up of sexual miscreant priests. What it deals with is this, Paula. In a sacrament, in the seal of the confession, if a priest were to nod his head, as they put on the front page, toward a penitent in a suggestive way, the Catholic Church had strictures regarding that. What they said was this. That priest could be thrown out of the priesthood simply for approaching a person or saying something in a solicitous way to a man or a woman who's receiving confession.

And, in fact, the penitent -- let's say it was a woman and the priest is trying to come on to her during the confession, she has -- if she wants to go ahead and talk to another priest, she will then be informed that she has 30 days to report the priest to his bishop before she's excommunicated. The point is, they wanted to put the onus on the penitent so that they could get the priest in trouble.

This has nothing to do with the civil authorities. And, indeed, this was overwritten by the Code of Canon Law in 1983 and the norms in 2001. CBS -- and let me tell you something. I have said that the media deserve high marks. I put it in the Catholic League annual report. The Catholic Church is responsible for the scandal, not the media.

This is the first time I've been angry at the media. And I'm not angry at CNN. I'm angry at CBS for knowingly lying about the Catholic Church in this report. It has nothing to do with sexual cover-up of crime. It deals with the seal of the confessional in terms of solicitations.

ZAHN: All right, let's bring John Allen back into the discussion.

And were you able to hear Mr. Donohue? And if you were, give us your reaction to the essence of this CBS reporting. They broke the story. You in fact tonight are confirming some facts which CBS also confirmed.

(CROSSTALK) ALLEN: Well, I can't get inside the head of -- yes, I can't get inside the head of the people from CBS and determine what motivated them to do this story.

ZAHN: Did they get it wrong, John?

ALLEN: But I think the truth is, from the very beginning of this crisis, it has been confusing for the public in the United States to be able to distinguish between the church's own internal legal system and its interface, if you like, with criminal and civil authorities. And I think the misread of this document -- and Mr. Donohue is right. It has been misinterpreted.

I think the misread reflects the confusion. I think it also reflects the fact that, unfortunately, the revelations about sex abuse by priests have been so horrific and the failures of some bishops to deal with them have been so disappointing, that it's created a climate in which people are ready to believe the worst about the church.

ZAHN: All right, John Allen, just clarify this for me. In this document, is it true that it says, if a priest tries to solicit sex from someone who's trying to give their confession, the allegation against that priest would be pursued in a most secretive way?


The allegation in terms of the church's own internal justice system, which would end up deciding whether or not that guy can continue to be a priest. It has nothing to do with the question of whether or not that penitent or that bishop would decide also to refer that charge to the police. In other words, these are two parallel processes. This document deals only with that first process.

Again, that's the confusion I'm talking about that has been difficult to explain to the American public since this story began.

ZAHN: Mr. Donohue, a final word tonight on what are pretty widespread perceptions held by the American public, that there was a culture in the Catholic Church that allowed for priests to move from parish to parish without having their crimes -- in some cases, they were convicted for these crimes, that their alleged crimes catch up with them.

DONOHUE: You're absolutely right.

And I think it's outrageous that any bishop would dare move a monster priest who would put his hands on a child and move him someplace else. I will never defend these kind of monsters. But I'm telling you something right now, Paula. What we have now is piling on by CBS. They're lying about what happened in 1962. We're not talking about sexual crimes. We're talking about a priest who's making some impure nod of the head toward a woman or a man on the other side of the confessional. It's not even a crime, and with severe penalties for the priest, and even to the point of getting thrown out of the priesthood. Now, how you get from that to justice is amazing to me. I want the Catholic Church to be held accountable where they're wrong. But I also want to say this much. Let's not have a feeding frenzy here on some part of the media, namely CBS. I don't want to blanket the media. It's CBS. They knew better. They looked at this document and they put out these lies. And they have to be held accountable. I want an internal investigation by CBS. I'm going to demand it tomorrow.

ZAHN: Well, we had no idea that's what you were going to say when you dropped by this evening. We, of course, cannot vouch for the legitimacy or the integrity of this reporting. We have seen parts of that CBS report. But we will attempt to get someone on from CBS to address your claims.

And, John Allen, we appreciate your perspective as well.


ZAHN: William Donohue, John Allen, thanks.


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