Vatican Officials Have Procedures to Keep the Roman Catholic
Church’s Worst Secrets Secure, Even When the Pope Dies.
St. Peter's Basilica
Of all the vexing questions surrounding the
widespread and on-going clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Roman
Catholic Church, perhaps the ones involving the Pope are among those
most begging for an answer. For such a centralized, authoritarian
organization headed by one single man, the Pope, the key
Watergate-type question of “what did he know and when did he know
it?” is crucial to any understanding of the full dimensions of the
The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of policing its own,
however poorly it may have done the job. The hierarchy fought hard
for the privilege as soon as Christianity was first legalized by the
Roman Empire, and has guarded it jealously ever since. During the
Middle Ages, in most countries, clerics were to be tried in
ecclesiastical courts, and if found guilty, sent to ecclesiastical
prisons run by the Inquisition.
This is the origin of the phrase “benefit of clergy” – not for the
good of other prisoners, but for any priest or monk apprehended by
the sheriff. If a man could prove he was educated by reading Latin
from the parish Bible, he was presumed to be a cleric and turned
over to the diocesan authorities. Only in cases of flagrant heresy,
which was considered treason to the state as well, would a cleric be
turned back over or “relaxed” to the secular officials in order to
be burnt, so that the actual death sentence would not taint the
The Church thus developed its own elaborate legal system which
served as the basis for the Inquisition in its many forms.
developed its own penitentiary system – monasteries and convents of
“strict observance” – which were not just for extremely devout
ascetics who enjoyed wearing hairshirts and sleeping on boards, but
where convicted priests, monks, nuns and even laypeople could be
effectively watched and punished out of the sight of the faithful
and the government, all for the good of their souls.
Vatican Secret Archives
In any case, records of clerical hijinks were kept in the secret
archives of the diocese, which even now is mandated by Canon Law.
 The Vatican also has its own
Secret Archives (their unashamed,
actual name), which are as vast as they are old. Headed by a
cardinal like the Vatican Library, another rumored storehouse of
secrets, they partially open today to a few approved scholars who
are let in only with specific purposes and with permission of the
It is the most mysterious institution in the papal city, for in its
more than thirty miles of shelving are reputed to be the accumulated
records of scandals, secrets, and revelations of the most shocking
and explosive kind, blithely boxed and filed away with the
insouciance born of centuries of silence and discretion.
The Secret Archives are so vast, disorganized, and secret that no
one even knows their full extent — one expert claims that there are
“only” 24 miles or so of shelves, though the Vatican itself recently
admitted that there are "85 linear kilometers (52 miles) of
She says that there are 135 fondi, or individual archives. These
include not only records of papal decrees, chancery business, and
the like, but much other material, including the records of
prominent papal families, suppressed religious orders and
monasteries, and those of nunciatures, or church embassies. Most of
this has never been examined, much less indexed and cataloged.
There have been several attempts to create indices by past
archivists, but they were incomplete to begin with. The archives
have been moved and looted several times during their long history.
Most of the medieval records that survived the Babylonian Captivity
were lost during the Sack of Rome in the sixteenth century; Napoleon
took them to Paris in the eighteenth where many volumes were
recycled into butcher paper; and much fell into the hands of the
Italian government later on.
Moreover, the paperwork generated by the various curial
organizations, while technically belonging to the Secret Archives,
remains under the control and often in the possession of the
dicastery that produced it. Thus the records of the Inquisition, for
example, can only be seen with permission from its successor
organization, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the
Faith, as well as that of the archivists.
Access to the archives is strictly controlled, and the period when
records cannot be examined is long, even by institutional standards:
everything since Napoleon was judged to be “too recent”, at least in
Could there be truly secret Secret Archives?
The Italian anticlerical party was disappointed in its hope of
finding the Secret Archives a repository for records of usurpations,
crimes, and sexual perversions. But the question still remains as to
whether the Secret Archives exercises internal censorship over its
What action is taken by a scriptor, custodian, or prefect
when, in the course of his work, he comes across material that is
morally or theologically controversial?
Has a closed (chiuso) fondo
[individual archive] gradually accumulated, the much-talked-of fondo
about which nothing is actually known, a closed fondo which is
categorically denied by the Archives authorities?
This is a question
which puzzled me during the long time I spent working in the Secret
Archives, and to which I still have not found any answer. My own
personal impression is that no such material is destroyed.
of the Archives have too much sense of the past, too much reverence
for scholarship, too much obligation to learning, for that. But such
documents may be omitted from the inventories, bound in volumes
containing documents of a very different kind, and relegated to some
fondo that is closed because of chronological limitation or very
This happened with the personal letters of Pope Borgia to the little
clan of his devoted women, and with the original summary of the
process of [the trial of]
Giordano Bruno, and may have
happened many other times that we do not know about. Such documents
may eventually reappear in the future...
Once in the Vatican, certainly the Secret Archives are central as
the final repository of all the reports of all kinds of dirty deeds
done by clergy, but as archives, they would not be responsible for
dealing with current cases. Still, the Curia is quite protective of
its contents — several years ago an approved priest, Fr. Filipo
Tamburini, who had worked there for a dozen years, was banned for
writing Saints and Sinners, a book about cases from the Secret
Archives of erring clergy who lived four or five centuries ago.
Truly, Rome holds its secrets most jealously.
Cardinals swear an oath when they first get the red hat to preserve
the secrets of the Church. So trying to find out which officials in
the Vatican, if any, are dealing with these questions is much like
trying to understand the inner workings of the Kremlin in the old
days, or, for that matter, who in the US government really knows
UFOs. To outsiders, such institutions present a blank
outer wall and an impenetrable inner maze of arcane titles and
unwritten rules, truly Byzantine in its complexity.
outright guessing are sometimes the only means of constructing even
a hypothetical picture of who or what is involved.
When in Rome
From the organizational chart of the Holy See, the most likely
place would seem to be the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith, which not that long ago was called the Holy Office of the
Inquisition. That dicastery, however, seems to be concerned more
with keeping theologians under control than sexual perpetrators.
However, the recent discovery of the document
Crimen Sollicitationes, proves that
this is indeed the case. For an analysis, click
Other likely Congregations would seem to be ones for the Clergy or
the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies for the Apostolic
Life (professed religious) or even Divine Worship and the Discipline
of the Sacraments. (The Vatican has never gone for short, convenient
These are concerned with “the life, discipline, rights, and
duties of the clergy” and members of religious orders while the
latter deals with “abuses to the sacred liturgy.”[5, 6]
they might have some jurisdiction, but perhaps the most likely
institution to have anything to do with handling these crisis would
be one of the Vatican’s three ecclesiastical tribunals:
the Apostolic Signatura
the Roman Rota.
The Rota deals with big-name divorces, while the Signatura is the
“Supreme Court” of the Vatican. That leaves the Apostolic
Penitentiary, which, despite its name, is not a prison for erring
evangelists, but the oldest tribunal of the Holy See, in charge of
granting absolutions, dispensations and other favors. (It also
The cardinal-prefect in charge, known as
the Major (or formerly, Grand) Penitentiary of the Holy Roman
Church, “is the only Curia official who remains in power, with the
full authority of his office, during the Sede Vacante" [the period
This is so that he may continue to confer necessary
pardon and dispensations during the duration of the vacancy.
“[He] is also the only cardinal that
who may maintain a steady stream of outside contact as the
nature of his office requires his continued attention. ‘In the
event he dies during Conclave, the conclavists must immediately
elect a successor for the duration of the Conclave. The mystery
of the mercy of God, which is exercised through the
Penitentiary, thus does not suffer interruption.’”
Well, isn't that special! It is generally thought that nobody, but
nobody, could communicate with the cardinals in Conclave — that
being the whole point of it. Indeed, the new rules are full of
precautions that those in conclave have no means of communication
with the outside world (such as cell phones), or that the Conclave
Yet this Cardinal Penitentiary, currently William Wakefield
Baum, is considered so important to the life of the Church that he
alone of all his peers will keep doing his job when the Pope dies,
even during Conclave. He even has his own revolving drum dumbwaiter,
smaller than the one used to pass food and medicine into the
sequestered cardinals, to pass his secret documents through.
In a private communication, May Ying Welsh, a researcher in Rome,
took me to task about this.
She kindly informed me that many other
cardinals retain their offices.
“These are the Cardinal Camerlengo,
the Cardinal Vicar of the diocese of Rome, the Cardinal ArchPriest
of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sostituto (Chief of Staff) of the
Secretariat of State, and the Secretaries of each of the dicasteries
of the curia. The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the
Church's Supreme Court) and the Tribunal of the Roman Rota also
continue their operations. Instead of reporting to the Pope, they
all report to the College of Cardinals.”
Others, she says, also have
contact with the outside, though in all cases it is only in cases of
emergency. She dismissed the idea that the rules cited above makes
the Apostolic Penitentiary even more significant than the Pope, even
though filling his position takes precedence even over the election
of a new pontiff.
Ms. Welsh maintains that it is necessary for the Major Penitentiary
to be in touch with the outside world in order to be able to forgive
those on their deathbeds. There is some sense to this, I must admit.
Still the question remains, is the Major Penitentiary, then, the
cardinal in charge of maintaining the cover-up?
She also says this about the work of the Cardinal Penitentiary:
“The Major Penitentiary does not
have a busy office. His work is extremely limited and mostly
involves excommunications reserved to the Holy See. These are
considered especially grave crimes.
The excommunications reserved to the
Holy See fall into 5 categories:
For a Bishop who consecrates
a Bishop without permission from the Holy See.
For desecration of the
For a priest breaking the
confidentiality of a confession.
For a priest absolving his
accomplice in a sexual sin.
For a person physically
attacking the Pope.”
Indeed, these are the provisions of Canon Law. It should be noted
that in many cases that have come to light in the current clergy sex
scandals, sexually predatory priests have heard the confessions of
their victims, to fix the blame on the victim and ensure it stays
secret. And of course, desecration of the Eucharist is one of the
major points of the Black Mass.
Both these offenses are reserved to Rome. Yet, as far as I have been
able to tell, in not a single one of these cases has the Vatican
acted publicly to excommunicate the offender.
Thus, though the noble
goal of silence may be to spare the faithful from scandal, it is a
cover-up nonetheless, and the Major Penitentiary remains one of the
Papal paperwork and black magic
A most telling clue that seems to confirm this comes from a
journalistic peek through the crack between the basilica’s doors.
The following is excerpted from a book called Pontiff, a colorful
insider’s view of the Vatican from the last days of Paul VI through
the assassination attempt on John Paul II. This scene deals with the
Pope’s daily paperwork in July, 1978.
Much of the work near the bottom of the tray requires no more than
careful reading and initialing.
The Apostolic Penitentiary handles
complex problems of conscience:
... It also advises the penalties a
pope may impose for such a dire crime as a priest saying a black
mass. Every year there are a number of such cases; they frighten
Paul more than anything else. He regards them as proof the devil is
alive and well and hiding inside the Church. Cardinal Giuseppe Paupini [the Major Penitentiary]... is the Vatican’s resident expert
on sorcery of all kinds. His work is adjudged so important and
urgent that he will be the only cardinal allowed during the next
Conclave to remain in contact with his office.
This has some very interesting and horrible implications. At the
very least it should be rather disconcerting that the Pope, as part
of his day-to-day job, is far more aware of the extent of true evil
“hiding inside” the Church than even the most cynical outsiders can
even imagine, and takes it very seriously.
Since John Paul II has retained such arrangements for the conclave
after him, then it seems that it was no co-incidence that Paul’s
point man on clerical black magic was the chief pardoner of the
Church. It makes sense that the Major Penitentiary would merit such
consideration only if the papacy takes the threat of wicked clergy
most seriously indeed and believes constant vigilance and total
secrecy are necessary. One may further infer from the language used
in the anecdote that this is not a new situation at all, and that
such “dire crimes” seem to have grown throughout Paul’s pontificate,
Perhaps it is easy to read too much into all this. But if the
current clergy sexual abuse crisis has revealed anything about the
Roman Catholic Church, it’s that the hierarchy can and will go to
great lengths to hide its dirty laundry.
It has millennia of
experience, and it just may be covering up even more monstrous
secrets than anything revealed so far.
On April 30, 2001 (a noted satanic holiday), Pope John Paul II
issued a new document as a result of the numerous new cases of
priests accused of serious crimes in the wake of the scandals. The
document, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, gives the handling of
cases formerly reserved for the pope's own decision over to the
jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"the sexual abuse of minors, crimes concerning the
Eucharist, such as the sacrilegious use of the host, and crimes
concerning the confessional, such as soliciting sex from someone who
has come to a priest for confession."
As that dicastery used to be
known as the
Holy Office of the Inquisition, a Vatican spokesman
acknowledged that it was because they had the "experience"
The trials, of course, would continue to be held in secret. (AP,
The Secret Archives are now online!
Well, probably not showcasing the "good stuff", but the Vatican's
webmasters have put up an extensive website.
Here's the link to the
Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum
1. The Code of Canon Law, Canons 486-490. See also The “Ex-Files”
2. The Pope Encyclopedia by Matthew Bunson. Crown Trade
Paperbacks, New York, 1995, p. 26
3. This quote and the information in the paragraphs preceding comes
from The Secret Archives of the Vatican, Maria Luisa Ambrosini with
Mary Willis, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1969, pg. 303.
The information in this section comes from The Church
Visible: The Ceremonial Life and Protocol of the Roman
Catholic Church by James-Charles Noonan, Jr., Viking, New
York, 1996, p. 65 ff.
5. Ibid., p. 73.
6. Ibid., p.
7. Ibid., p. 75.
8. Pontiff by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts,
Doubleday, New York, 1983, p. 75.
9. Ibid., p.55
See also The Archives and the Secret Archives Required
by Canon Law
by Thomas Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.:
The Archives and the Secret
Required by Canon Law
Thomas P. Doyle,
April 6, 2002
1. The Code of Canon Law states a requirement that every
diocese have an archive in which are kept the
instruments and writings which pertain to the spiritual
and temporal affairs of the diocese. (cc. 486-488). In
other words, all of the files of the diocese, including
personnel files, are to be kept.
2. Furthermore there is to be a secret archive in every
diocese where more sensitive materials are kept (cc.
489-490). The canons specify very few specific items
that must be kept in the secret archives. These include
internal forum matrimonial dispensations (c. 1082),
secret marriages (c. 1133), dispensations from
impediments to orders (cc. 1047-1048), decrees of
dismissal from religious life (c. 700) and documents
relating to the loss of the clerical state by dismissal,
invalidity of orders or dispensation (cc. 290-293). Also
the records of canonical penal trials involving matters
of morals are to be kept in the secret archive.
3. The canons do not give specific examples of documents
that are to be kept in the ordinary archives. Also,
there is no specific mention in the canons of personnel
files, although it is commonly known that every diocese
keeps a personnel file on all clerics who are either
incardinated in the diocese or on loan to the diocese.
Often these files contain a wide variety of information:
biographical and academic information, records of
assignments, letters sent about clerics (with both good
and bad information), medical and psychiatric records.
4. Matters involving penal procedures are to be kept in
the secret archive. When an allegation of an offense is
made known to an ordinary, he is obliged by the law to
conduct a preliminary investigation either personally or
through another (c. 1717). Canon 1719 refers to the acts
of the investigation which are to be kept in the secret
archives. This canon presumes that a written record of
the investigation is made and retained. Any
investigations of priests alleged to have committed
sexual assault on children or anyone else would fall
into this category.
5. There are two fora or places for the exchange of
information in Church law: the external forum concerning
matters about which a record may be kept, and the
internal forum, about matters of conscience about which
no records are kept with the exception of decisions and
decrees of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome. The most
common place for the internal forum is sacramental
confession. No records are ever kept of sacramental
confessions. All matters for which there is a record,
whether this is considered a confidential record or not,
are matters for the external forum. Records of all
canonical trials, penal procedures and investigations
are matter of the external forum. Matters in the
external forum are not subject to the seal of the
6. Judicial matters such as penal investigations are not
matters of the internal forum by the very fact that a
record of the investigation is mandated by the law.
Similarly, the contents of a personnel file are not
presumed to be matters of the internal forum.
7. The communications between religious superiors and
their subjects and bishops and their clergy are not
presumed to be internal forum matter unless it is a
question of communications received in the course of
sacramental confession or spiritual direction or a
communication which is explicitly understood to be in
the non-sacramental internal forum.
8. Documents contained in the general archives are not
to be removed unless there is permission to do so from
the bishop or from both the moderator of the curia and
the chancellor. Then they are only to be removed for a
short period of time. (canon 488)
9. All documents in the archives are to be retained and
not destroyed. Certain documents from the secret
archives are to be destroyed however. These are the
documents relating to criminal cases, that is, cases
involving the allegation of the commission of a
canonical crime. The documents that are to be destroyed
are those which pertain to a person accused of a crime
who has died or documents pertaining to a criminal case,
ten years after the case has been closed. Even when the
documentation is destroyed, a summary of the cases is to
be retained along with the sentence of the tribunal if
the case was subjected to a complete canonical trial.
10. The above canons refer to the revised Code of Canon
Law (1983). Similar legislation existed in the prior
Code (1917) which went out of force upon the
promulgation of the new Code.