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Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

By Thomas P. Doyle, A.W.R. Sipe and Patrick J. Wall
Volt Press, 383 pages, $29.95
Sex, lies, secrecy and abuse


Since exposure of clerical sex abuse reached critical mass in 2002, Catholic leaders have sometimes defended their mishandling of the problem by claiming insufficient knowledge. Publicly, some bishops said they didn’t understand that pedophilia is incurable; thus the attempts to “rehabilitate” abusive clerics, then shift them from assignment to assignment.

Fr. Thomas Doyle, A.W. Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall have coauthored a book, Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, that asks, “What did [the Catholic hierarchy] know, and when did they know it?” The answer, the authors emphatically proclaim, is “in a nutshell ... all about it and all along.”

The three authors approach the book as historians but also as advocates of church reform. Fr. Doyle, a canon lawyer, served at the Vatican’s U.S. embassy in the early ’80s. Along with psychiatrist and priest Michael Peterson and church attorney Ray Mouton, he authored a report that predicted the scope of the abuse scandal and recommended methods to meet the challenge. Mr. Wall, a former Benedictine monk and canon lawyer, works for a California law firm that advocates on behalf of alleged victims. Richard Sipe, also a former Benedictine monk, is a practicing therapist who has studied the sexuality of Catholic clergy for many years.

Drawing on their skills as canonists and researchers, the authors construct a compelling forensic account to support their thesis. “From the earliest days, when priests were allowed to marry, we find laws telling them to avoid sex,” they write. “We also find condemnations of homosexuality in the ranks of the clergy, the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, and the solicitations of sex by priests in the confessional. The sexual abuse of children by priests is found condemned over and over again in the unorganized decrees of local churches that were promulgated before the first comprehensive collection of laws and commentaries ... appeared in the middle of the 12th century.”

In fact, from that 12th-century period when church doctrine began to be codified into canon law, the authors find specific references regarding the abuse of young boys, a practice known by the telling Latin term stuprum. (Put stuprum into its verb form and you get the more familiar infinitive “to stup.”)

Perhaps of greater value is the book’s explication of how canon law encourages -- and even requires -- church leaders to engage in secrecy so as to prevent scandal. If a bishop suspects a cleric has committed sexual abuse, for instance, canon law requires the bishop to conduct an investigation (or delegate the investigation) and then place the results into a secret archive. Those privy to such investigations swear secrecy and risk excommunication for violating that secrecy, note the authors.

Then there’s the technique of “mental reservation,” which, say the authors, is “used by a person who is caught between an obligation to keep a secret and a duty to tell the truth.” Furthermore, “Catholic moral theology allows a person caught in such a dilemma to use misleading words to deceive another so long as a deliberate lie is not told. This is commonly employed in order to avoid a greater harm.” Justification for mental reservation is built into the oath cardinals take to “never reveal to anyone whatsoever has been confided in me to keep secret and the revelation of which could cause damage or dishonor to the Holy Church.” This might go a long way toward explaining why church officials lie about scandal when, as the authors contend, honesty is the best policy.

If there’s a downside to Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes, it’s toward the end when the book’s journalistic tone becomes a bit polemical. The authors are angry with the institutional church, but chances are good that anyone curious enough to pick up this book doesn’t need to be reminded there’s cause for anger.

The authors conclude with hope: “The long, sad history of sexual abuse by clergy has been written. Now the church -- priests and people -- have a chance to write a different record -- one of mutual concern and effective protection of the vulnerable, and support for the trustworthiness and integrity of the clergy.”

Bill Frogameni is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

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