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Sex-abuse investigations rip open Catholic Church's secret files

For centuries, the church has maintained a second set of books containing sensitive documents such as notes on priests' alcohol abuse, disputes over parish funds and, later, molestation allegations.

May 27, 2013|Victoria Kim
  • Retired priest Michael Wempe, 63, after a judge ordered his release on his own recognizance following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California violated the Constitution when it passed a law to revive criminal prosecutions in longago sexualabuse cases.
Retired priest Michael Wempe, 63, after a judge ordered his release on his… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Preparing for his return to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles after six months' treatment at a center for pedophile priests, Father Michael Wempe sat down to type out a list of concerns. Arrangements for his dog. Counseling and support groups for himself.

Above everything, he wrote at the top of the list in the 1987 memo: "Confidentiality — Reports from here destroyed, even this paper."

Wempe had good reason for the request. The reports from the center laid out how he had confessedto molesting young boys. Wempe's therapists also urged church officials to immediately destroy everything. If the papers fell in the hands of law enforcement, the priest, the archdiocese and the treatment center could be in serious trouble.

But Cardinal Roger Mahony and other church leaders ignored the warnings. Rather than shred or burn the reports, they preserved them in carefully organized file cabinets where they remained until this year.

The release of those records — and thousands of pages of other damaging abuse documents in January — begged a question: Why did the church hold on to decades-old evidence of its priests' sins?

The explanation lies in centuries of Catholic Church history and is a tale involving secret betrothals, scandal, even a murder or two. Since the time of the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church has maintained two sets of records: one for the mundane and a second "secret archive" for matters of a sensitive nature. The cache — known as sub secreto files, Canon 489 files, confidential files or C-files — was to be kept under lock and key, only for the eyes of the bishop and his trusted few.

After the files became known to prosecutors and plaintiff's lawyers, the American justice system has pried open the doors to an archive long kept sealed. Thousands of additional pages are set to become public in coming months, as more than a dozen Catholic orders — Salesians, Claretians, Vincentians and others — prepare to bare their own secrets pursuant to agreements with victims. L.A. County Superior Court Judge Emilie Elias could set the date for their release at a hearing Tuesday.

For some, the revelations were damning. For others, they offered validation for dark, private memories.


The files were never meant to go beyond church walls.

The earliest mention of the secret archives in church history dates to the 1700s, in an edict on marriage issued by Pope Benedict XIV. The archives were to bear witness to "marriages of conscience" — unions that may be banned under civil law or otherwise scandalous, but celebrated by a priest in secrecy.

In the 20th century, when church law regulating the archives were written, Canon 489 prescribed that there was to be "a safe or cabinet, completely closed and locked, which cannot be removed" to which only the bishop would hold the key.

Safeguarding the files was not taken lightly. One scholar suggested in 1954 that files could be kept in "modern safes" that could "withstand concentrated burglarious attacks by drills, sledge hammers, wedges and mechanical tools."

Over time, the files came to hold information about priests' alcohol problems, squabbles over parish funds, clerics who had impregnated parishioners. By the 1970s and '80s, church leaders found themselves increasingly documenting in the files whispers of a more disturbing sort: sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests.


Few outside the innermost circles of the church knew of the trove's existence until the late 1980s, when Minneapolis attorney Jeff Anderson received a tip from a priest that evidence of molestation was probably sitting somewhere within the local diocese. Anderson and other victims' lawyers subpoenaed the secret files. Church lawyers resisted, arguing that forcing the church to disclose the files was an infringement of its right to religious freedom.

It doesn't matter "whether the church gives a file a particular name," judges ruled in one 1988 Pennsylvania case, ordering the disclosure of the file of a priest who allegedly molested a "mildly retarded" boy for nearly a decade.

Such decisions set off alarm bells. One Cleveland bishop suggested at a canon law society meeting that precautions could be taken ahead of time.

"If there's something there you really don't want people to see you might send it off to the Apostolic Delegate," A. James Quinn said in 1990, referring to the Vatican's embassy. "They have immunity to protect something that is potentially dangerous."

Anderson said that when he finally laid hands on the files, he felt shivers.

"It makes you both excited and sick at the same time," he said.


Prosecutors in Toledo, Ohio, stumbled upon archives there while investigating a cold-case murder of a nun.

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