Discovering Records beneath the Robes: Canonical Protection and Civil Resurrection of the Boston Archdiocese Secret Archives

By Pike, Amanda M. | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Discovering Records beneath the Robes: Canonical Protection and Civil Resurrection of the Boston Archdiocese Secret Archives


Pike, Amanda M., Journal of Information Ethics


A Brief History of Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Mandates of Canon Law

Sex crimes have been prevalent within the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. It is a long-standing, recurring, and widespread problem existing throughout the entire history of the Catholic Church. As early as the 305 A.D. Council of Elvira, official church records document an institution absorbed in regulating the sexual conduct of its clergy-revealing not only immoral behavior, but also criminal (Doyle, Sipe, & Wall, 2006, p. 295). Through the early medieval period to today, the Catholic Church has been regulating sexual behavior and thoroughly documenting the clergy's sexual violations. Despite evidence of violations, there was no official system of law to address this problem within the Church until the early twentieth century (Doyle & Rubino, 2004, p. 562). At this point, sexual abuse continued, but the new mandates of Canon Law enforced an elaborate system of documentation to record allegations, investigations, and other related activities regarding sexual abuse.

All cases concerning sexual violations in the Church, recent and past, have been well documented within the records of the institutional church, described as the "single most powerful element in proving its pattern and practice of protecting abusers, concealing offenses from those who had a right to know, neglecting to warn and protect parishioners, and failing to report crimes" (Doyle et al., 2006, p. 217). Not only did the church maintain thorough and detailed accounts of sexual misconduct, the Code of Canon Law enforced a veil of secrecy so great that these records were intentionally concealed to protect the reputation of the Church at the risk of perpetuating patterns of abuse.

Canon Law distinguishes between two record types: the diocesan archives and the secret archives. The diocesan archives are considered ordinary, secular, and public by nature. Specific record types include priests' files, containing "seminary records, transfer indications, letters of commendation and complaint, and other related matters" (Doyle et al., 2006, p. 134). Regarding access to these collections, "Canon 487 states that only the bishop and chancellor may have keys to the archives and permission for entry must be obtained from the bishop, the moderator of the curia, or the chancellor" (Doyle et al., 2006, pp. 134-135). Despite these measures of security, it is important to note that the records held in the diocesan archives are unrestricted due to their secular nature.

A parallel set of restricted records is kept within the secret archives, and these are "mandated" to be kept "completely closed and locked, from which documents cannot be removed" (Cafardi, 1993, p. 96). For as long as recordkeeping has existed within the church, dioceses were expected to maintain these secret collections, with the practice that the "documents placed in the secret archives have no secular use or existence" (Cafardi, 1993, p. 97). Furthermore, because they are restricted collections, "only the bishop is to have the key to the secret archives" (Doyle et al., 2006, p. 135). The motivation for maintaining documents in secret may be influenced by the power and authority of the records themselves, and these secret collections reinforce the hierarchical power structure of the Church.

The climate of secrecy surrounding these archives is so powerful that "the canons do not describe in detail what is to be kept in the secret archives" (Doyle et al., 2006, p. 135). James O'Toole, former archivist of the Boston Diocesan collections, notes that at worst, he thought the secret records contained "problem priest" files, perhaps documenting alcohol abuse (O'Toole, 2007). It is often assumed that archivists have full access to their holdings, and that "it is logical to assume that they will discover illegal activities, wrong-doing, and ethical lapses as soon as [or before] anyone else" (Cox, 2008, p. 1132). …

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