Plaintiffs' attorneys in sex abuse lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church are brandishing a new weapon -- or, actually, a rather old one: a 1962 Vatican document that some say is the "smoking gun" in a conspiracy to cover up sex crimes by priests.
Not so, say church lawyers. They contend that the document, which fills 60 pages in the original Latin, mainly tells church officials how to conduct a fair investigation in one rare and complex situation: when a priest is accused of "soliciting" a sexual sin during confession.
Both sides agree that the document demands "perpetual silence . . . under penalty of excommunication" from all Catholics involved in such investigations, including the alleged victim and any witnesses.
They also agree that the document itself was marked confidential, circulated only to bishops and deposited in the church's secret archives until a lawyer for sex abuse victims obtained a copy last month.
But there the agreement ends.
Suddenly, attorneys in courtrooms from Massachusetts to Utah are arguing over such Latin phrases as de crimine pessimo ("on the worst crime") and whether the 1962 document was superseded by the church's 1983 Code of Canon Law -- arcane matters, yet carrying high stakes for the church's reputation and multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Houston-based attorney Dan Shea, who unearthed the document, maintains that it is "not just a smoking gun, but a nuclear bombshell."
It "shows that the Vatican has been providing instruction to all the bishops in the United States to obstruct justice," he said. "That's called criminal conspiracy."
Shea, 59, a former Catholic deacon who holds a graduate degree in theology, said he first noticed a reference to the document on the Vatican's Latin Web site in January and spent months trying to get it. Finally, he said, he obtained the text in late July from the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, an Air Force chaplain in Germany who has been a consultant to many sex abuse victims in lawsuits against the church.
Shea gave a copy to a Boston lawyer, Carmen Durso, who represents 85 alleged victims. Durso relayed it to the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts and colleagues in the Boston bar, and from there it spread to plaintiffs' attorneys across the country, Shea said.
"This thing is moving really fast," he said. "Everybody's got it, and everybody is amending their proceedings to include it -- or at least they should be."
CBS Evening News gave the document national exposure on Aug. 6 with a report that began: "For decades, priests in this country have abused children in parish after parish, while their superiors covered it all up. Now, it turns out the orders for this cover-up were written in Rome, at the highest levels of the Vatican."
That coverage drew a furious response from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a New York-based group. "This is an issue fraught with deception, all right -- but it's not the Vatican that's guilty -- it's CBS," the Catholic League said.
What the TV network failed to say, according to Catholic League President William Donohue, is that the document "was meant to deal only with cases of sexual solicitation by a priest of a penitent in the confessional."
Three specialists in canon law who were contacted for this article said they believed that plaintiffs' lawyers and media reports have blown the document out of proportion. But they said the Catholic League's interpretation was not quite right, either.
The document -- known by its first two words in Latin, Crimen sollicitationis, or "the crime of solicitation" -- was sent to all bishops around the world by the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. Now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it's a Vatican department that safeguards orthodoxy and has for centuries dealt with the most serious crimes under church law.
The Rev. John P. Beal, an associate professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, said solicitation in church parlance "is the act of a confessor who tries to seduce or lure a penitent into a sexual sin . . . whether or not the act takes place in the confessional."
The bulk of the document instructs bishops on how to investigate such cases, placing great emphasis on secrecy to preserve the seal of confession, said the Rev. Ladislas Orsy, professor of canon law at Georgetown University. "You're dealing with an extremely delicate situation, because the priest cannot reveal anything that was said, even to defend himself," he said.
Five paragraphs at the end of the document, however, vastly extend its scope. This section, titled "On the Worst Crime," says the investigative rules also apply to "any obscene, external act, gravely sinful, perpetrated in any way by a cleric or attempted by him with youths of either sex or with brute animals."
In other words, Orsy said, the Vatican imposed the same secrecy over child sexual abuse and bestiality.
Beal said his view is: "So what?" Civil courts also impose secrecy on grand juries, he noted. The intent of secrecy in both legal systems, he said, is not to prevent prosecution, but to ensure fairness.
Orsy took a less sanguine view. "I think actually there has been, and there is still, an unnecessary and exaggerated cult of secrecy in the church, which was even greater in those days than it is today," he said. "Then there is a nearly neurotic fear of scandal. The bishops always tried to cover up things that might reflect badly on the church, and you can see that in the sexual abuse cases."
But, Orsy continued, there was no need to put that into writing, because it was "nearly ingrained" into every bishop.
"This document reflects a mentality and a policy. I do not think [the document] initiated it. And I do not think as a practical matter [the document] contributed much to it, because for the most part this document was just sitting in the archives," he said. "But it is a manifestation of it."
Doyle, the priest who provided the document to Shea, agreed. Trained as a canon lawyer, he worked in the early 1980s in the Vatican Embassy in Washington, where he co-wrote a landmark report urging U.S. bishops to tackle sexual abuse more openly. Though allied with victims and critical of the church, he said in an e-mail that he does not consider the 1962 document a "smoking gun."
Doyle noted that the imposition of the "secret of the Holy Office" -- the highest degree of Vatican secrecy -- "is not unusual" in church tribunals and "is certainly not unique to this document nor to the sexual crimes" listed in it.
He also said that although accusers and witnesses are bound by secrecy during and after the church's internal investigation, nothing prevents them from going to police or prosecutors before that process begins.
"It seems to be stretching a bit too far to conclude that this process is a substitute for civil law action or is an attempt to coddle or hide clergy who perpetrate sex crimes," Doyle said.
Expressing deep ambivalence, Doyle said it is not hard to understand why many people have pounced on Crimen sollicitationis as evidence of a conspiracy. "Over the past 18 years but especially since January 2002, we have witnessed wave after wave of deception, stonewalling, outright lying, intimidation of victims and complex schemes to manipulate the truth and obstruct justice," he said.
Yet, he said, "it is dangerous to isolate the document and strain to make it more than what it was intended to be."