A tradition of institutional self-protection

One of the best things about reading history is the insight or perspective it can provide on today. I saw a perfect example over the weekend in The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal. Written by German ecclesiastical historian Hubert Wolf, the book looks at the Roman Catholic Church’s investigation of activities at a convent in Rome. In examining some of the doctrinal issues that played an underlying role in the investigation, Wolf sheds a bit of historical light on a modern controversy.

In the years of coverage of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, there’s been a lot of attention directed at whether or why Church officials were so secretive about — or even covered up — those activities. The Church has been condemned by many for not only keeping quiet but dealing with such situations by transferring offending priests to another parish or diocese. While that might seem like a modern reaction, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio indicates it has a historical basis.

According to Wolf, until the mid-nineteenth century any sexual misconduct by a priest was made public. As a philosophy known as ultramontanism — the source of the concept of papal infallabiligty — grew within the church, though, priests gained an elevated status. According to Wolf, while engaging in sexual activities “didn’t make priests unworthy of their cult status according to canon law,” not surprisingly it did diminish their status with conservative parishioners. There was a simple solution to that: “their sins couldn’t be allowed to become public.” And Roman Catholic authorities put this idea into practice,

Although an 1853 Catholic encyclopedia indicated that monastic priests who used their position as confessors to solicit a penitent into “immoral or indecent acts” were subject to “exile, the galleys, life imprisonment, degradation and being delivered up to the secular judges,” that wasn’t the case. At least according to the contemporary source Wolf relies upon for the activities of the Church’s Holy Office at the time, it took three denunciations by “honorable women” before a case came before the Holy Office. Even then, it “treated these priests with extreme leniency: they were usually just assigned a penance, and had to spend a few days saying psalms. Members of their order who also happened to be consultors or cardinals of the Holy Office often made sure that the defendants could lie low in another monastery for a while.” In fact, Wolf’s source observes that if the priest spontaneously confessed, “‘tutto è finito,’ everything is all right again.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the Church’s handling priests who engage in improper sexual conduct. It is apparently simply adhering to traditions established some 150 years ago. I’ve never seen this mentioned in the media. Rather, we need history to provide context for current affairs.

Every investigative body that has studied these situations … has reached the same inevitable conclusion: The primary concern of Church officials in these cases has been to protect the reputation of the Church and its priests – not the best interest of the child.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, Fighting for the Future

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