Bella Figura and the Vatican. Guest blogger: Kieran Tapsell

Bella figura, writes Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in his book, For Christ’s Sake, pervades the Vatican. In Italian, it means putting on a good appearance, and never admitting mistakes – what we might call “spin”.  Its opposite, bruta figura means looking dreadful. Bella figura can quickly turn bruta as Sir Walter Scott reminded us: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

In 1983, Pope John Paul II promulgated the 1983 Code of Canon Law that made it virtually impossible to dismiss a paedophile priest. He had already abolished the simpler “administrative” trial, leaving only the impossibly complicated “judicial” trial.  In 1988, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote to the Church’s senior canon lawyer, Cardinal Castillo, asking for a simpler method. Castillo refused, saying that it would diminish the rights of priests. Never mind the children who were being abused.

Canon lawyers thought that the 1983 Code had repealed Crimen Sollicitationis, and so did the Vatican, because for six years, from 1988 to 1994, it negotiated a request by the American bishops to extend the Code’s limitation period of 5 years for bringing dismissal proceedings. The Americans explained that the limitation period meant there were no dismissals, because children take decades to come to terms with what happened to them. Crimen Sollicitationis had no limitation period. The Vatican eventually relented in 1994, and extended the period to when the victim reached 28 years. It gave the same extension to Ireland in 1996, confirmed it for the Americans in 1998, but left the rest of the world waiting until 2001.

Around 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Bertone from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) started telling bishops that Crimen Sollicitationis had not been repealed – in other words they could ignore the limitation period, and use the simpler administrative procedure.

In 2001 Pope John Paul II issued his Motu Proprio, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela that contained an Orwellian rewrite of history by stating that Crimen Sollicitationis was “in force until now”, and that was confirmed by a letter to bishops of 18 May 2001 from Ratzinger and Bertone. According to them, for the previous 18 years or so, bishops really could have ignored the 5 year limitation period, and used the simpler procedure. The American canon lawyer, Nicholas Cafardi says that this was all bella figura. It was not true, and the Vatican was trying to cover up a dispute between Cardinals Ratzinger and Castrillon over who was in charge of the sex abuse problem by pretending that Crimen Sollicitatonis was always in force.

But there is another more sinister explanation. If bishops were not hampered by these provisions under the Code, then they could be more easily blamed for any failure to dismiss paedophile priests. And this is exactly what Ratzinger did in 2010 after becoming Pope, when in his Pastoral Letter to the Irish people, he blamed the Irish bishops for not using the “long established norms of canon law” to dismiss these priests.

There is a less Machiavellian explanation but it is still infected with bella figura. The advice given by Ratzinger and Bertone in the late 1990s about using Crimen Sollicitatonis was canonically dubious, and actions done under their instructions could have been null and void. Legal systems have a transparent way of dealing with this by legislating to validate the actions taken. But that means admitting a mistake. Ratzinger and Bertone preferred the Orwellian solution of rewriting history, and in doing so, spun the tangled web.

On the 1 October 2006, the BBC Panorama Program, “Sex Crimes and the Vatican” alleged that for twenty years, Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was in charge of enforcing pontifical secrecy for clergy sex abuse through Crimen Sollicitationis.  In fact he had only been enforcing it for two years. This was Ratzinger’s own fault, because of what he falsely claimed in his letter of 18 May 2001. The tangled web had come back to bite him, giving the impression that he was personally far more culpable than he really was.

The web became even further tangled for the unfortunate canon lawyers who had to explain canon law on sexual abuse to the Murphy Commission which found that even competent people were totally confused. In California, Monsignor Brian Ferme, told a court in 2005, that “technically” Crimen Sollicitationis was in force until the 2001 Motu Proprio. In other words, it wasn’t really, but technically it was – or vice versa. After all, the final interpreter of canon law, the Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II himself, had declared something to be true when in fact it wasn’t. Bella figura had crossed the Atlantic.

In November 2009, the Murphy Commission Report on the Archdiocese of Dublin had some scathing criticisms of canon law, accusing it of confusion and lack of coherency. The bella figura had turned hopelessly bruta.

In April 2010, Benedict had second thoughts. He rewrote the historical introduction in his revision of the 2001 Motu Proprio, admitting that the 1983 Code had repealed Crimen Sollicitationis, and tried to cover up his “in force until now” misstatement with a marvellous piece of confusing prose that should have won him a prize for mental reservation. Mental reservation, explained Cardinal Connell to the Murphy Commission, involves using “an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version.”

Referring to the letter of 18 May 2001, the new historical introduction says: “This letter informed the bishops of the new law and the new procedures which replaced the Instruction Crimen Sollicitationis.” Benedict had mentally reserved the fact that the letter was false, and he simply referred to what the letter said.

Benedict’s resort to mental reservation was understandable. The Catholic Catechism says that mental reservation is justified to avoid scandal. It was scandalous enough for the faithful to know that the Vicars of Christ can make mistakes. It was disastrous if they found out they had been telling fibs.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired Sydney solicitor and barrister with degrees in Theology and Law. 

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