Comment Opinion & Features

Viganò vindicated?

New abuse norms suggest the archbishop had a point about Vatican secrecy

According to the organisers, the recent Vatican sexual abuse summit was aimed at changing a mindset more than specific procedural reforms. Yet the legal reforms announced last week for the Vatican City State may prompt a wide-ranging shift in the culture in the Roman Curia and the Holy See’s diplomatic corps. Indeed, it might be a second earthquake in that culture, following the seismic shift wrought by the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò last year.

The Viganò testimony, despite casting a recklessly wide net, has been confirmed in its broadest outline. Aside from the substance of Viganò’s denunciation, the very fact of it caused a horrified reaction in the Roman Curia and the diplomatic corps because it violated the pontifical secret (the Church’s rules of confidentiality). Whistleblowing is not something curialists and diplomats do.

The Curia and the diplomatic corps necessarily have a culture of confidentiality; almost all of what crosses their desks relates to matters which individuals can reasonably expect to be treated with discretion.

Cases that reach the Roman Curia are by definition those that cannot be resolved in the local churches, and so are the more complex and disputed cases. Nunciatures have two main tasks: 1) making recommendations for the appointment of bishops, the consultations for which are entirely confidential; and 2) to field complaints and report to Rome all that is wrong in a particular country. No one writes to the nuncio to say that his parish priest is a top-notch preacher. Parishioners write to complain about heresy or sacrilege or moral turpitude after the local bishop appears unwilling or incapable of dealing with it.

A culture of confidentiality is essential, but it can be corrupted to become a culture of concealment.

The new Vatican City State legislation – which also covers the Holy See diplomatic personnel – makes it mandatory to report suspicions of sexual abuse of a minor to the Vatican City State police and prosecutorial authorities. It is clearly intended to be the equivalent of the mandatory reporting laws which are becoming the norm in civil law around the world.

Critics downplayed the significance of the law because there are very few minors living in the Vatican City State. Which is true enough, but therein lies the potential impact. In the largely clerical world of the Curia and the nunciatures, the new reporting requirement means clergy are required to report on each other. More particularly, the junior clergy – priests and monsignors – will be required to report on suspected misconduct by their superiors, all of whom are bishops.

Yes, the requirement only relates to suspected sexual misconduct with minors, and not other forms of corrupt behaviour, but the impact could be far-reaching. And the penalties – some €5,000 (£4,300, $5,600) – are serious for those on a curialist’s or diplomat’s modest salary.

It’s hard for those outside the Curia or diplomatic corps to realise the degree of control the superiors can exert over their subordinates. The monsignors who serve there – and while Pope Francis refused to make ordinary parish priests monsignors, he has kept the clerical honour for those who work in the Curia and the diplomatic corps – are thought to hold prestigious positions of great responsibility. That is sometimes true, but despite external appearances, they often have less autonomy or authority than a curate in a local parish. Their superiors can control their daily schedules, even to the extent of regulating their coffee breaks. Usually quite accomplished, they do not issue a routine letter without approval. And of course their assignments depend entirely on the judgment those above them.

Consequently, it is possible for superiors to conduct something of a reign of terror over those below them. It is not the norm, but neither is it unheard of. Combined with the vast reach of the pontifical secret, it would be hard to imagine a less friendly climate for whistleblowing. But now it is mandatory to do so.

It remains to be seen whether the new legislative mandates will be enforced, and what protections will be offered for those who do report misconduct.

There is no reason to expect a wave of allegations. Yet there are more than 200 archbishops who serve as nuncios, secretaries of Vatican congregations, presidents of pontifical councils and other Roman offices. Even if a few were to have allegations of misconduct reported by their colleagues, it would send shockwaves through the Curia and the diplomatic corps.

Last year Archbishop Viganò justified his violation of the pontifical secret by arguing that it ought not be used conceal immoral, even criminal, behaviour. Now that is the law.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of