I have written on the subject of Crimen sollicitationis a number of times but I think it might be useful to summarise my understanding of the document and the controversy surrounding it. I’ve used a question and answer format.
What is Crimen sollicitationis?
Crimen sollicitationis is what is known as an “instruction” in Roman Catholic canon law.1 According to Canon 34 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, instructions “clarify the prescripts of laws and elaborate on and determine the methods to be observed in fulfilling them.” Crimen sollicitationis clarified and elaborated upon the 1917 and 1983 Codes of Canon Law by “provid[ing] special norms [in the case of sexual offences] with an added emphasis on confidentiality because of the very serious nature of the crimes involved.”2
What does Crimen sollicitationis mean? How should it be written? How is it pronounced?
By convention in Catholic canon law, a document is referred to by the first few words of its Latin original. In this case, the first few words are Crimen sollicitationis.3 The letters are usually italicised.
Why is there controversy surrounding Crimen sollicitationis?
A document known as De delictis gravioribus was published on the Vatican website in 2001. It made reference to Crimen sollicitationis.6 Daniel Shea, a lawyer who was at the time suing the Church, contacted a friend of his, the journalist Kathy Shaw, who in turn contacted Thomas Doyle who managed to track down a copy of the document.7
Shea began to make a number of extreme claims about Crimen sollicitationis, namely that Crimen sollicitationis is “not just a smoking gun, but a nuclear bombshell” that “shows that the Vatican has been providing instruction to all bishops in the United States to obstruct justice…That’s called a criminal conspiracy.” This has come to be known as the “smoking gun” view of Crimen sollicitationis.
The “smoking gun” view has been repeated innumerable times, often quite publicly:
- Kathy Shaw was eager to publicise Shea’s views in a series of articles, initially relying upon the non-expert (and partisan) assertions of Shea’s colleague Carmen Durso, in addition to her own amateur interpretation (which was based upon an English translation, of unknown quality, of an unauthenticated Latin copy of Crimen sollicitationis.)8 Her first article was published on July 29, 2003. 9
- The August 6 2003 edition of CBS Evening News described Crimen sollicitationis as “the Vatican’s secret orders to conceal sex abuse by priests.”
- Crimen sollicitationis was mentioned in a number of legal actions against Catholic organisations in the US.10
- The BBC documentary Sex Crimes and the Vatican repeated the “smoking gun” view, this time with the apparent support of Thomas Doyle (who took a position contrary to his previous, and later, claims.)11
- Comedian Bill Maher claimed that the Pope “wrote a letter instructing every Catholic bishop to keep the sex abuse of minors secret until the statute of limitations ran out.” Presumedly he was referring to De delictis gravioribus and/or Crimen sollicitationis.
- Ironically, the media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) chastised the US media for not mentioning the Crimen sollicitationis conspiracy theory.
- A number of athiest12, fundamentalist13 and gay14 websites have repeated it over the years.
One could argue that the Crimen sollicitationis “smoking gun” conspiracy theory has become a ‘factoid‘, a falsehood continually perpetuated to justify hatred or contempt of the Pope and Roman Catholicism.
Is the English translation of Crimen sollicitationis accurate?
There are apparently a number of translations of Crimen sollicitationis on the Internet. They all appear to be based upon what Doyle claims is a Latin original. Although Andrew Walsh’s article on Crimen sollicitationis claimed that Doyle produced an English translation for Shea (which is presumedly one of those found on the Internet), Doyle himself claims not to have translated Crimen sollicitationis at all.
It is important to remember that only the Latin version is authoritative in Catholic canon law and even a reasonably good English translation may not be sufficient to communicate the finer details of the Latin original. I am yet to see any reason to trust the accuracy of the English translations that have been published on the Internet.
What is the purpose of Crimen sollicitationis?
This is the most important question of all but also the most difficult to answer. The document was authored in Latin and was to be read in a manner consistent with the norms of interpretation that apply to Roman Catholic canon law. In other words, it forms part of Catholic canon law.
One could attempt to interpret it for oneself but there are a number of problems with that approach. The first is that (unless one knows Latin) one will have to obtain an accurate English translation. The next issue is that it contains technical terms and their meaning may not be clear to non-experts, that is, it’s “a legal-canonical document written in highly technical language.”15 The final issue is that what we’re ultimately interested in how it was read by members of the Catholic hierarchy, not how it could be read by members of the general public. So it is irrelevant how a non-expert may interpret it, the important thing to know is how the experts did interpret it when, or if, it was applied. For that, we must rely upon experts in canon law.16
Journalists struggling to judge the actual significance of the document, face a problem that has dogged them throughout the scandal: the paucity of neutral “experts.” Huge quantities of data have come from plaintiff’s attorneys. This group, while often the last resort of victims, stands to make millions of dollars from judgments and settlements against the church. Crimen sollicitationis surfaced at the end of a long stretch of bad news for plaintiffs hoping that state prosecutors would file criminal charges against Catholic bishops.
On the other side, those trained to interpret the arcane legal language of the Catholic church are almost all employed by the church.
The solution to this dilemma is Thomas Doyle.
Doyle is a ferocious critic of the US hierarchy and, as my previous post makes clear, it is inconceivable that he would do them any favours. 17 Whilst it could be reasonably argued that he is biased against the hierarchy and therefore his anti-hierarchical claims should be viewed with caution, his public comments on Crimen sollicitationis (baring one exception) run counter to his biases and are in agreement with “the hierarchy.” He states his view of Crimen sollicitationis:
The 1962 document [Crimen sollicitationis] and its predecessor from 1922 are not proof of an explicit world-wide conspiracy to cover up clergy sex crimes.18
Doyle set the fire when he released the document and fanned the flames of controversy through his appearance on the BBC. He is not someone I would usually consider to be a reliable expert but given on this occasion his biases run in the other direction, I feel that it’s not unreasonable to rely upon him in this instance. He is the best, and only, hope that “smoking gun” theorists have of proving their claims, but he does the exact opposite.
Of course, other experts in canon law, such as John Beal19, Francis Morrisey20, Ladislas Orsy21 and Edward Peters22 dispute the “smoking gun” theory as well. Every expert who has expressed a view on the matter, including the “anti-hierarchy” Doyle, agrees that Crimen sollicitationis is no smoking gun.
Why does the “smoking gun” theory persist?
This is a deep question and one that is perhaps beyond the scope of this article. For those that buy into the theory, it undoubtedly makes the Pope, and Catholicism, look bad, so those with an interest in perpetuating this impression will gain by having it continue to circulate.
It is easy to be persuaded by allegations of wrongdoing by another when one is predisposed to believe the worst about them. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s persuasion and then there’s rational persuasion. There are many people out there eager to be emotionally persuaded that any evidence against the Pope and the Catholic Church must be true.
Here are some suggestions as to why the theory persists:
- Some stand to make money by perpetuating the story. They may honestly believe it is true or they may think that it is false yet serves their purposes well. In either case, they spread and maintain the story.
- Some may be genuinely gullible, or lack the mental ability to critically access the evidence.
- Some may have based their conclusions upon false or out of date evidence. It should be noted that even though Doyle claimed to have been misrepresented by the BBC, he does not appear to have contacted the producers of Sex Crimes and the Vatican, as the same version of the documentary is still up on their website and his “misrepresented” views are still being displayed and continue to influence people.
- Some have something ideological to gain out of the theory and may therefore be too quick to accept the theory regardless of the lack of evidence. A member of the gay community may view it as ‘proof’ that the Catholic Church is hypocritical and therefore not worthy of being listened to when it attacks their lifestyle. Fundamentalists may want to paint the Church as flawed for failing to adhere to what they regard as appropriate doctrine. Atheists may view it as ‘proof’ that religion poisons the mind.
I hope that by writing this piece others will get a better and more accurate view of the topic. I don’t expect anyone to suddenly change their view on the Catholic Church because of it, but if they choose to be critical then there are more than enough actual failings to focus on. 23
- For example, the subsequent document De delictis gravioribus describes it as “the instruction Crimen sollicitationis describes it as “the instruction Crimen sollicitationis“. [↩]
- Thomas Doyle, Commentary on Crimen sollicitationis (2006), p. 4. [↩]
- See the Latin version of Crimen sollicitationis. [↩]
- See an English translation of Crimen sollicitationis. [↩]
- A recent post of mine contains a short segment of the BBC documentary Sex Crimes and the Vatican which has a voice-over pronouncing Crimen sollicitationis. [↩]
- See the second paragraph of this English translation of De delictis gravioribus, in particular footnote 3. [↩]
- I authored a post some time ago in which I outlined the media timeline of the Crimen sollicitationis story. It is largely correct but a few slight details have changed. The present article contains the most up-to-date information. [↩]
- It is probably clear that I consider Shaw’s article irresponsible and her behaviour unprofessional. An obscure document written in a rarely used language on something as technical and complex as Catholic canon law would necessarily require expert opinion to understand. Rather than act as a sceptical journalist, she simply regurgitated the self-serving views of the lawyers suing the Church. She did a slightly better job in her 2004 and 2005 articles. [↩]
- Shaw actually quoted Shea, who mentioned Crimen sollicitationis, in a 2002 article, but it is not readily available on the internet. It appears that Shea was at the time yet to obtain a copy of it as his claims were not as extreme. [↩]
- It was also mentioned in a suit that tried, but failed, to include the Pope as a defendant. I discuss this case in a post I wrote in response to a fundamentalist ministry that made a number of false claims about Crimen sollicitationis and the legal action against the Pope. [↩]
- He later claimed to have been misrepresented. [↩]
- Such as the Heathen Hangout discussion of Crimen sollicitationis. [↩]
- One example is titled “Sex Crimes and the Vatican” at Reformation.org. [↩]
- Such as the Gay Authors discussion of Crimen sollicitationis. [↩]
- Thomas Doyle, Commentary on Crimen sollicitationis (2006), p. 5. [↩]
- One analogy is the interpretation of the Constitution. It is written in English and anyone can read it and get a superficial understanding of it, but if one is interested in how it has been authoritatively interpreted, one must consult experts in constitutional law. [↩]
- See my article on Thomas Doyle. [↩]
- Thomas Doyle, Commentary on Crimen sollicitationis (2006), p. 7. [↩]
- He is quoted saying so in the Shaw article and the Walsh article. [↩]
- He is quoted saying so in the John Allen Jr article. [↩]
- He is quoted saying so in the Walsh article and the Cooperman article. [↩]
- Peters can be seen expressing this disagreement on his blog. [↩]
- Take a look at this article by an atheist discussing the controversy surrounding Crimen sollicitationis. I do not agree with all of their claims but it shows that one can be a critic of the Catholic Church and the present Pope without falling for the reasoning that underlies the “smoking gun” conspiracy theory. [↩]
- Crimen sollicitationis and the Media
- Jacob Prasch and Moriel Ministries
- Reverend Thomas Patrick Doyle
- Thomas Doyle on Crimen sollicitationis
- The Pope’s Visit to Australia