Something has been bothering me in the now viral news story about the letter His Eminence Dario Card. Castrillon Hoyos wrote to the French Bishop Pierre Pican.
You know the facts of the situation.
A French priest Fr. Rene Bissey was a child abuser. The Bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux learned about this in 1996. The Vicar General apparently knew about this from a victim’s mother. At first they had the priest in some neutral assignment and then later gave him a parish. Fr. Bissey was arrested in 1999, convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Bishop Pican was also put on trial for seemingly covering up the crimes. This is also important because this is the first time since the Revolution that a French bishop has been before a civil tribunal. Bp. Pican was sentenced to three months in prison.
On March 30 the French website Golias published a 2001 letter from Card. Castrillon, then Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, to Bishop Pican in which the Cardinal wrote:
I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration. You have acted well and I am pleased to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all other bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his son and priest.
The Holy See pretty much threw Card. Castrillon under the bus for that. Then last week during a conference in Murcia, Spain, Card. Castrillon said that his 2001 letter to Bp. Pican was authorized by late Pope John Paul II and the Cardinal praised Bishop Pican as a model for all bishops because he would not denounce the priest.
This certainly looks very bad. The mainstream press and even the Holy See seems to be piling on.
But I kept scratching my head over the case, because something just didn’t seem right.
First, Card. Castrillon was the Prefect for Clergy not for Bishops. I couldn’t get my head around how someone like Card. Castrillon would go so far as to write to that bishop and praise that bishop – who preferred to go to jail rather than denounce a priest who had really committed such terrible crimes. Was the Cardinal merely being a zealous advocate in favor of priests because he was Prefect for Clergy?
I had the nagging sense that some element missing.
Now I read in Columbia Passport:
According to La Verdad, a regional Spaniard journal, the French bishop did not denounce the priest because he knew it by the first instance under the Sacrament of Confession. According to the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, a priest cannot denounce the matter that is given to him under the gravity of Confession. It includes crimes.
If the bishop was held to silence under the Seal, that could explain how he didn’t think he was able to denounce Fr. Bessey to civil authorities and later gave him an assignment.
When a priest or bishop is bound by the Seal he cannot reveal the contents of the confession to anyone by either word or action. He cannot act on the content of the confession. If there was nothing else apparent and known openly in Fr. Bessey’s record that would argue against his receiving an assignment, to refuse to give him an assignment would have raised questions about why, whether there was something wrong with him that people didn’t know about. It could have been perceived as a moral dilemma for the bishop.
It strikes me that this could in some way explain why Card. Castrillon would have penned such a letter. Furthermore, knowing that the issue was complex, he sought the advice of the Pope before sending it. At issue was a defense of the Seal of confession. The French bishop was not being praised for protecting a priest, a criminal priest, but rather for upholding the Seal of confession.
I muse about this because hitherto I had not seen in news stories on this issue any mention that the French bishop had first learned of the priest’s criminal behavior under the Seal of confession.
If the Vicar General knew, and told the bishop, then the bishop had an independent source of information. Even in the case it is under normal circumstances still better for priests not to act on the content of a confession, but this was not a normal circumstance.
Why did the bishop consent to hear the confession of one of his priests? This is a perfect example of why a superior should not receive the confessions of those immediately under his authority: the superior runs the risk of having his hands bound and not being able to act.
The bishop also could have found some other assignment than a parish for the priest, but that would not have solved the problem of having in the ranks of the presbyterate a criminal child molester.
In any event, perhaps I had merely missed the mention of the Seal in earlier reporting – in fact I haven’t followed this too closely because of other work. Maybe some of you saw it earlier.
But I think it is an important dimension to this story which needs to be clarified.
Discussion of the "boundaries" of the Seal comes into play.
UPDATE 1607 GMT:
I found a Washington Post story here which mentions the issue of confession.