Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Another day, another revelation ..

I just got done saying yesterday that faithful witness to Christ means suffering for those who fail to live up to the demands of Christian discipleship. And now here we are again, with a 1984 letter from the Congregation for the Clergy, this one to the late Bishop Manuel Duran Moreno of Tucson, advising him to turn over personnel files to civil lawyers “under no circumstances”.

To give then-prefect Cdl. Silvio Oddi his due, he remonstrated with +Moreno that the unnamed priest “should have [been] removed from his pastorate immediately upon completion of the process outlined in n. 20 of the motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae, of 1966. The signed testimonies about his drunkenness, outrageous language, liberties with women, etc., are too numerous and convincingly articulate to leave any [doubt] that Father’s ministry is both harmful and inefficacious and should therefore have been terminated long ago.”[1]

Furthermore, despite the usual overblown SNAP rhetoric about avoiding cooperation with police and prosecutors, the reference to “civil lawyers” indicates a tort process and not a criminal prosecution; in fact, the plaintiff in the action referenced was the priest(!). The context in which the CC speaks of “due process” is purely one of canon law and not American jurisprudence.

However, the letter goes on to say, “The files of a Bishop concerning his priests are altogether private; their forced acquisition by civil authority would be an intolerable attack upon the free exercise of religion in the United States; and we have no doubt that both Federal courts and public opinion would sustain us in that position.” Off to the side is a marginal note, probably by someone in the Tucson chancery (perhaps +Moreno himself): “Who knows? I will not be so sure!” Even in 1984, this wasn’t a given; one can question whether Cdl. Oddi et al. had a competent American lawyer to advise them on this.

So again we have a letter that says less than SNAP wants it to say, less than SNAP claims it does, but more than we Catholic apologists find comfortable. Again we find ourselves on the defensive against words from almost thirty years in the past.

In this situation, though, the damning paragraph isn’t completely explained away by SNAP’s active and conscious misrepresentation. We’re left to wonder just how far the Diocese of Tucson was required to go to prevent the unnamed priest’s file being turned over to the defense attorneys: SCOTUS? And if the Supreme Court had ruled against, would +Moreno felt obligated by the CC’s insistence on secrecy to bury the file or go to jail?

Despite cultural memes to the contrary, the Catholic Church has been fighting for centuries to keep Caesar from taking that which belongs to God, to maintain a separation between civil and ecclesial governments. This has come with an institutionalized distrust of secular rulers and their organs: give them an inch, and they’ll try to take a mile. It was precisely on the issue of the treatment of “criminous priests” that brought Henry II and St. Thomas Becket to loggerheads; were their dispute brought into today’s playing field, the martyr would look far less a hero than he did in the twelfth century.

The price of such distrust is conflict with the most basic, most elementary demand of transparency: the willingness to surrender interior documents for public inspection. If a diocese puts up a long and expensive struggle to keep a priest’s file out of the court’s hands, it almost begs to be concluded that the chancery is trying to cover something up. Unfortunately, we can no longer assume complete high-mindedness on the part of the bishop … and we can thank Cdl. Bernard Law & Co. for that.

Now, I certainly don’t agree that diocesan papers should be handed over on request by any third party, just as I don’t see why a corporation’s secret formula or marketing strategy should be available on Wikileaks. I just don’t believe in the press as guardians of “the people’s right to know”. I’m sure if I demanded SNAP’s or Planned Barrenhood’s internal memos, they’d tell me to pound sand … and they’d be right to. And I sure as hell don’t believe a tort lawyer has a right to make his case in the media, using journalists as his ventriloquist dummies.

However, the Church can’t have it both ways. If Caesar must keep his greedy fingers off of God’s property, it’s just as true that the Church can’t deny Caesar’s just demands. In this case, there was no good name to protect, as Cdl. Oddi’s letter conceded that the priest’s odium populi was no more than he had earned with his vile behavior. Priests don’t break the seal of the confessional on paper, so nothing in the correspondence between +Moreno and Fr. Ignotus should have required a confidentiality worthy of a contempt of court or obstruction sentence.

Like most of the revelations this past year, this letter indicates a problem in the past tense; it doesn’t follow that the problem still persists. In the last few years, we’ve seen a dramatic turnaround in the speed and manner with which the Vatican deals with predator priests. It remains to be seen whether Benedict XVI has effected a similar revolution in policy with regard to Church secrecy.

I sure hope so. Apologetics is little fun when your defense against an accusation of evil is to say: “My client isn’t malicious … merely bone-headed.” Our bishops need to grow spines, not just to set our teachings forth authoritatively and unapologetically, but also to admit forthrightly when they have made mistakes. They also need the strength to comply with the law when the law’s demands are just.

Above all, they need to stop treating secrecy as an end in itself.

[1] Spelling, punctuation and usage regularized but otherwise as in original document.