Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Da Vinci Code myth of "secret Vatican files"

A peculiar narrative has taken hold of the Church's critics over abuse. It's hard to know where it originates, but Monitor has heard it from the lips of Peter Tatchell and Geoffrey Robertson. Now that it has taken root as a "media myth", it is being endlessly repeated.

The allegation is that there are "secret files" on abusive priests held in the Vatican, which the Vatican is "refusing to hand over".

It was loudly asserted, for example, by a human rights lawyer debating with CV coordinator Austen Ivereigh this morning on Sky News (photo).

And here's Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor, telling a press conference today: "We need the pope to say, 'I will hand over all the information I have about abusing priests wherever they are in the world. I will hand it over to the authorities of the countries where these people are being protected.'"

What on earth are they talking about? The files on abusive priests copied to the Vatican after 2001 (following Pope John Paul II's motu propio of that year) are diocesan files, subject to the local civil law of the country where the diocese is present. Should the courts demand that the files be handed over -- as happened, for example, in Boston  -- they need only ask the local bishop. The files in the CDF are reviewed (currently by Mgr Charles Scicluna) to ensure that, following credible allegations of abuse, the appropriate action, canonical and civil, has been taken. Their existence in the Vatican is not a substitute for action by the local bishop; it is to ensure compliance with the various laws, local and canonical, that are relevant to abusive priests. It was a measure designed to prevent cover-up by putting salt on the tails of feet-dragging bishops. 

The remarkable thing about this accusation is that nowhere is there a single press report of a police force of a country asking the Vatican for these files, let alone of such a request being frustrated. It would be rather a big story if it happened. If it isn't a story anywhere, it hasn't happened. And why would it? The only "Vatican" files are on "Vatican" priests -- and no one is claiming that sex abuse of minors is happening in the Vatican and not being dealt with.

But of one thing you can be sure: this myth will now harden into solemn fact through endless, mindless repetition. As we know from combatting the Da Vinci Code myths, this one, like that of UFOs, or sightings of Elvis, is in practice very hard to refute.You cannot demonstrate the non-existence of what does not exist.