The Latin expression crimina sollicitationis refers to sexual advances before, during or immediately after administration (even simulated) of the Sacrament of Penance[1]

Crimen sollicitationis (Latin for "the crime of soliciting") was a letter sent in 1962 by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, to "all Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops and other Local Ordinaries, including those of Eastern Rite".

In the document, the Holy Office laid down procedures to be followed in dealing with cases of clerics (priests or bishops) of the Roman Catholic Church accused of having used the sacrament of Penance to make sexual advances to penitents; its rules were more specific than the generic ones in the Code of Canon Law.[2] In addition, it instructed that the same procedures be used when dealing with denunciations of homosexual, paedophile or zoophile behaviour by clerics.

It repeated the rule that any Catholic who failed for over a month to denounce a priest who had made such advances in connection with confession was automatically excommunicated and could be absolved only after actually denouncing the priest or at least promising seriously to do so.[3]

A revision of the document, in line with the 1983 Code of Canon Law (which had replaced the 1917 Code that was in force in 1962) and the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, was issued in 2001 in the form of the Instruction De delictis gravioribus. An English translation of this 2001 Instruction appeared on Origins, 31:32 (24 January 2001).

Canon law on cases of solicitation in confession

The Code of Canon Law in force when Crimen sollicitationis was issued[4] obliged anyone whom a priest solicited in confession to denounce him within one month and ordered that any such priest be subjected to a serious ecclesiastical punishment:

Canon 904. Ad normam constitutionum apostolicarum et nominatim constitutionis Benedicti XIV Sacramentum Poenitentiae, 1 Iun. 1741, debet poenitens sacerdotem, reum delicti sollicitationis in confessione, intra mensem denuntiare loci Ordinario, vel Sacrae Congregationi S. Officii; et confessarius debet, graviter onerata eius conscientia, de hoc onere poenitentem monere.

Canon 2368 §1. Qui sollicitationis crimen de quo in can. 904, commiserit, suspendatur a celebratione Missae et ab audiendis sacramentalibus confessionibus vel etiam pro delicti gravitate inhabilis ad ipsas excipiendas declaretur, privetur omnibus beneficiis, dignitatibus, voce activa et passiva, et inhabilis ad ea omnia declaretur, et in casibus gravioribus degradationi quoque subiiciatur

Canon 904. In accordance with the apostolic constitutions, in particular the constitution Sacramentum Poenitentiae of Benedict XIV of 1 June 1741, a penitent must within one month denounce to the local Ordinary or the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office a priest guilty of the crime of solicitation in confession; and a confessor must, under a grave obligation of conscience, inform a penitent of this duty.

Canon 2368 §1. Anyone who has committed the crime of solicitation dealt with in canon 904 is to be suspended from celebrating Mass and hearing sacramental confessions and, if the gravity of the crime calls for it, he is to be declared unfit for hearing them; he is to be deprived of all benefices and ranks, of the right to vote or be voted for, and is to be declared unfit for all of them, and in more serious cases he is to be reduced to the lay state.

Crimen sollicitationis indicated the procedure to be followed between a denunciation and the possible infliction of a penalty.

Outline of the letter Crimen sollicitationis

  • Preliminaries (sections 1-14)
  • Title One: First intimation of the crime (15-28)
  • Title Two: The trial (29-60)
    • Chapter I: Investigation (29-41)
    • Chapter II: Canonical regulations and cautioning of the accused (42-46)
    • Chapter III: Summoning the accused (47-54)
    • Chapter IV: Conduct of the trial, verdict and appeal (55-60)
  • Title Three: Penalties (61-65)
  • Title Four: Official communication (66-70)
  • Title Five: The most evil crime (71-74)
  • Approval by Pope John XXIII on 16 March 1962
  • Appendices:
    • Formula A: oath of office
    • Formula B: abjuration of errors
    • Formula C: absolution from excommunication
    • Formula D: delegating a person to receive a denunciation
    • Formula E: receiving a denunciation
    • Formula F: delegating a person to examine witnesses
    • Formula G: full examination of a witness (about the priest and the accuser)
    • Formula H: partial examination of a witness (about the accuser only)
    • Formula I: general examination of the accuser
    • Formula L: conclusions and proposal of the Promoter of Justice
    • Formula M: decision of the Local Ordinary
    • Formula N: admonition of the accused
    • Formula O: decree of arraignment
    • Formula P: examination of the accused
    • Formula Q: conclusions and proposal of the Promoter of Justice
    • Formula R: sentencing a convicted accused person who denies guilt
    • Formula S: sentencing a convicted accused person who admits guilt
    • Formula T: communication of the sentence to the accused


The document's title, "Instructio de modo procedendi in causis sollicitationis" (Instruction on procedure in solicitation cases), indicates that it was composed to indicate how to carry out a canonical investigation into accusations of solicitation. It described the procedures to be followed in each phase: reception of a denunciation; the course of the investigation, summoning the accused, sentencing, and the possibility of appeal.

The result of the investigation could vary:

  • if the accusation appeared to be unfounded, this was stated in the record and the documents containing the accusation were destroyed;
  • if only vague evidence emerged, the case was filed away for use if fresh evidence appeared;
  • if the evidence was strong but insufficient for arraigning the accused, he was given an admonition and the records were preserved with a view to any further developments;
  • if the evidence was strong enough, the accused person was summoned and a canonical trial took place.

Quoting canon 2368 §1 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, then in force, Crimen sollicitationis, 61 indicated the penalties that could be imposed after conviction. These penalties, such as suspension a divinis, deprivation of an office or rank, and reduction to the lay state, were of public character, even if the trial itself had been conducted with all due secrecy.

The same part of the document laid down that, in addition to those penalties and not as a replacement for them, penances should be imposed on guilty priests, and those in danger of repeating their crime should be subjected to particular vigilance (64).

Except in connection with the sacrament of Penance, canon law imposed no legal obligation - though a moral one might exist - to denounce clerics guilty of engaging in or attempting a homosexual act; but the procedure described in Crimen sollicitationis was to be followed also in dealing with such accusations (71-72). And any gravely sinful external obscene act with prepubescent children of either sex or with animals engaged in or attempted by a cleric was to be treated, for its penal effects, as equivalent to an actual or attempted homosexual act (73).

Unless solicitation in connection with Confession was involved, not only the local bishop but also superiors of religious orders exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishop could proceed, either by formal trial or non-judicially ("modo administrativo"), against members of those orders who had committed such crimes; superiors of non-exempt religious orders could also do so, but only non-judicially (74).

Secrecy of the trial

Speaking of the investigation of accusations of the crime of solicitation, section 11 of Crimen sollicitationis said:

Quoniam vero quod in hisce causis tractandis maiorem in modum curari et observari debet illud est ut eaedem secretissime peragantur et, postquam fuerint definitae et executioni iam traditae, perpetuo silentio premantur (Instr. Sancti Officii, 20 febr. 1867, n. 14); omnes et singuli ad tribunal quomodocumque pertinentes vel propter eorum officium ad rerum notitiam admissi arctissimum secretum, quod secretum Sancti Officii communiter audit, in omnibus et cum omnibus, sub poena excommunicationis latae sententiae, ipso facto et absque alia declaratione incurrendae atque uni personae Summi Pontificis, ad exclusionem etiam Sacrae Poenitentiariae, reservatae, inviolabiliter servare tenentur.

As, assuredly, what must be mainly taken care of and complied with in handling these trials is that they be managed with maximum confidentiality and after the verdict is declared and put into effect never be mentioned again (20 February 1867 Instruction of the Holy Office, 14), each and every person, who in any way belongs to the tribunal or is given knowledge of the matter because of their office, is obliged to keep inviolate the strictest secrecy (what is commonly called "the secrecy of the Holy Office") in all things and with all persons, under pain of automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication, incurred ipso facto without need of any declaration other than the present one, and reserved to the Supreme Pontiff in person alone, excluding even the Apostolic Penitentiary.

The document thus imposed absolute secrecy on the conduct of the trial, even after it had ended and its verdict, favourable or unfavourable, had been put into effect. An oath of secrecy was to be taken not only by the members of the tribunal but also by the person or persons denouncing the priest, by the witnesses, and by the accused priest himself, who was free to discuss it only with his defence counsel (Section 13 of the document).

The oath of office to be taken by the members of the tribunal was given as Formula A:

... Spondeo, voveo ac iuro, inviolabile secretum me servaturum in omnibus et singulis quae mihi in praefato munere exercendo occurrerint, exceptis dumtaxat iis quae in fine et expeditiones [recte: expeditione] huius negotii legitime publicari contingat ... neque unquam directe vel indirecte, nutu, verbo, scriptis, aut alio quovis modo et sub quocumque colorato praetextu, etiam maioris boni aut urgentissimae et gravissimae causae, contra hanc secreti fidem quidquam commissurum, nisi peculiaris facultas aut dispensatio expresse mihi a Summo Pontifice tributa fuerit.

… I do promise, vow and swear that I will maintain inviolate secrecy about each and every thing brought to my knowledge in the performance of my aforesaid function, excepting only what may happen to be lawfully published when this process is concluded and put into effect … and that I will never directly or indirectly, by gesture, word, writing or in any other way, and under any pretext, even that of a greater good or of a highly urgent and serious reason, do anything against this fidelity to secrecy, unless special permission or dispensation is expressly granted to me by the Supreme Pontiff.

The ecclesiastical penalty for violation of secrecy by members of the tribunal was automatic excommunication. For the accused priest, it was only automatic suspension a divinis. No ecclesiastical penalty was imposed on accuser(s) and witnesses, unless violation of secrecy occurred after an explicit warning given in the course of their examination (Section 13 of the document).

Purpose of the secrecy

The document dealt exclusively with the procedure to be followed in connection with a denunciation to the ecclesiastical authority of a priest guilty of solicitation in Confession or of similar acts. It imposed secrecy about the conduct of the ecclesiastical trial, not allowing, for instance, statements made during the trial by witnesses or by the accused to be published. But it did not in any way impose silence on those who were victims of the priest's conduct or who had learned of it in ways unconnected with the ecclesiastical trial.

"These matters are confidential only to the procedures within the Church, but do not preclude in any way for these matters to be brought to civil authorities for proper legal adjudication. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People of June, 2002, approved by the Vatican, requires that credible allegations of sexual abuse of children be reported to legal authorities."[5]

Some interpret the secrecy about the procedure as a cover-up of scandalous conduct. This view was presented in a BBC documentary film Sex Crimes and the Vatican.[6] of 1 October 2006.

Others see it as aimed rather at the protection of all involved, the accused, the victim/denouncer and the witnesses, before the verdict was passed: "It allows witnesses to speak freely, accused priests to protect their good name until guilt is established, and victims to come forward who don’t want publicity. Such secrecy is also not unique to sex abuse. It applies, for example, to the appointment of bishops."[7]

A presentation of the question can be read in a study [8] of 1 November 2006 by Thomas Doyle, OP, JCD.


  1. "Crimen sollicitationis habetur cum sacerdos aliquem poenitentem, quaecumque persona illa sit, vel in actu sacramentalis confessionisa revi; vel ante aut immediate post confessionem ..." (opening words of the document)
  2. Codex Iuris Canonici (1917), Liber quartus: De processibus
  3. "18. «Fidelis vero, qui scienter omiserit eum, a quo sollicitatus fuerit, intra mensem denuntiare contra praescriptum (suprarelati) Canonis 904, incurrit in excommunicationem latae sententiae nemini reservatam, non absolvendus nisi postquam obligationi satisfecerit aut se satisfacturum serio promiserit»"
  4. The law in force since 1983 is as follows:

    Canon 1387. Sacerdos, qui in actu vel occasione vel praetextu confessionis paenitentem ad peccatum contra sextum Decalogi praeceptum sollicitat, pro delicti gravitate, suspensione, prohibitionibus, privationibus puniatur, et in casibus gravioribus dimittatur e statu clericali.

    Canon 1387. A priest who in confession, or on the occasion or under the pretext of confession, solicits a penitent to commit a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue (in the traditional Orthodox and Catholic numbering, the commandment against adultery - Ed.), is to be punished, according to the gravity of the offence, with suspension, prohibitions and deprivations; in the more serious cases he is to be dismissed from the clerical state.

  5. April 2005 statement by Joseph Fiorenza, then Archbishop of Galveston-Houston
  6. [1]
  7. Explaining "Crimen Sollicitationis". John L. Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter, 15 August 2003
  8. s, updated Version of October 2008 in [2]

See also

External links

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