is it a crime to cover up a crime? catholic priests etc

I tried but I can’t find where this has been answered. Officials in the catholic church took active measures to hide evidence of and the perpetrators of a crime that they knew about. There are cases that have nothing to do with a confessional.
How is it that these actions are in themselves not a crime?
I know they don’t have to report evidence of a crime, they aren’t in a mandatory reporting profession, but when they took deliberate acts to hide evidence of a crime-say transferring the priest to another parish, counseling victims not to go public, etc., how is that not a crime? What am I missing or misunderstanding?

I’m a catholic. I can’t cite laws of any country. But I’d say that by covering up such crimes they broke God’s law and I’d hope that’s enough to make them feel punished. I also hope that any country’s laws which have been broken will now be fully adhered to.

Yes, it is a crime, but it is very difficult to prove. In 2012, Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia was convicted of covering up abuses by other priests, but his conviction was eventually overturned by the Superior Court.

Some states and countries have passed specific laws requiring certain professionals to report any evidence of child abuse. But basically, other than that, there is no law requiring you to report knowledge of a crime, generally, to the proper authorities. After all, then we all become police, lawyers and judges. How do we know what is a crime, what the authorities already know, what the criminal intent of the perpetrator was? Where do you draw the line between “I heard a rumor” and “he told me he did it”? How would you write the law, what crimes would you make mandatory to report and how definite does the knowledge have to be? (And then what? Unless the guy blurts it out in a room full of people, you have to get a criminal to testify that he told someone - and then it’s a criminal’s word…) If he blurts it out in public, could “I thought the other guy was going to tell the cops” be a defence? Or “everyone knew”?

Oh, and if the monsignor persuades the victim or their parents to say nothing, could they be charged too?

It’s one thing to say “there oughta be a law” it’s a big difference to write one that works.

Then there’s the question - what constitutes cover-up? Moving a person far, far away could be considered concern to separate the perp and his victims, and anyway falls in the category of what the church does from time to time anyway - priests move around. Obstruction is lying to police or destroying evidence. Business as usual, or removing someone from the opportunity to re-victimize the same person, hardly qualifies as destroying evidence. I’m sure a lawyer can chime in on what really makes up “accessory” but I imagine it has to be pretty immediate. Moving a guy a month later when a complaint is made is hardy immediate.

SO it would be difficult to impossible to charge the church hierarchy with obstruction or accessory unless they were deeply involved in direct immediate cover up of specific offenses. No DA likes to bring a case they probably won’t win.

Finally, in a lot of cases the authorities, like the church, did not want to air dirty laundry and went along with things; by now the statute of limitations has run out and timely charges are too late. Witnesses have died, evidence is gone.

I’m not saying what happened is good. But, this is the way people behaved until recently - now the lesson is learned, hiding something this big will bite you harder when it eventually comes out.

The other lesson is that for the same reason cops can’t just grab whoever they want, need a warrant and probably cause to search your property, you can’t be stuck in front of a jury and ordered to explain your crimes for the prosecutor’s fishing expedition, etc.- the system requires the police to find and collect evidence, it does not require everyone else to do the policeman’s job for him, or roll over and give up all they know voluntarily.

This isn’t failure to report knowledge of a crime, though – it’s participating in covering it up. I’m pretty sure that would make you an accessory (“after the fact”) in almost any jurisdiction. Hard to prove, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t illegal.

Good points. I don’t want to turn anyone in to an informant. Knowledge of a crime isn’t by itself a crime. Actively covering it up, I think would be. But it would be hard to prove. The official actions fall within the normal operations of the organization, so just because someone gets transferred isn’t actively covering up a crime.

Thanks for helping me understand the background.

Obviously laws vary from place to place, but as already noted in the common-law world it’s not, in the absence of specific legislation, a crime simply to fail to report a crime.

Being an accessory after the fact requires that, knowing that a crime has been committed, you positively do something to assist the criminal to evade prosecution or punishment. In the Catholic church case, assigning a priest to another parish in the same state is clearly not going to be enough to support a charge of accessory after the fact; he is still within the jurisdiction, and can be charged. Assigning him to another state probably isn’t enough either, since he can easily be extradited.

Assigning him to a post in a place from which he could not be extradited might found a charge, but you would need to show that the person who made the assignment decision knew that the priest concerned had committed a crime, and that the assignment would help him evade charging, conviction or sentencing.

Historically, most convictions for being an accessory after the fact involve more than simply arranging a new posting for someone; they involve things like concealing them in a safe house; providing a disguise or other means to evade arrest; tampering with evidence; tipping the offender off to an impending arrest; using force or deception. I’m not saying that in no case has a Catholic church official ever done any of these things; just that arranging a new posting, on its own, seems to fall well short of them.


Though if a fugitive shows up at my door and asks if he can hide out here for a few days, if I agree and the cops track him down, I would expect to have some explaining to do. While the church did the same thing, they do that as part of their regular job, but still.

Not if they learned about the crimes under the seal of confession.

If I am not mistaken the seal of the confessional prevents (according to canon law) anything that went on in the confessional from being spoken about under pain of excommunication. However, doing things like relocating a priest or taking other action to hide his crimes does not seem to me (speaking as a non-catholic) to follow as a consequence of that. Saying nothing about a crime is much different than taking positive action to hide it.

What’s the difference between the confession and just making someone really, really, promise not to tell?

The difference is what happens when the promise not to tell is broken. There is automatic excommunication if confessional secrecy is broken. Priests for some reason don’t like getting excommunicated. :smiley:

I don’t think the priests in question had been charged with a crime, nor were they being investigated as part of a criminal inquiry. So the situation is not really analogous.


The thing I could see being a problem is them compelling the victims not to tell the police. Is there anything illegal about that? That does seem to be something that helps the perpetrator evade capture.

Legally speaking, a priest cannot be compelled to testify as to anything he learned in the context of confession – but he can be compelled if he merely “really, really, promised” not to tell.

I don’t there there is, no. There’s a wide range of crimes which are also civil torts (and sexual assault is one). If I threaten to sue you for assaulting me, or converting my property to your own use, we can enter into negotiations and settle the claim on terms which, among other things, involve me promising not to publicise my allegations and/or report them to the police. Whatever about the morality of such an arrangement, it’s perfectly legal andI think fairly common.

Obviously there are additional dimensions that need to be considered in the specific case of allegations of child sexual abuse by clerics. For example:

  1. The victim is a child; in many cases the complaint is brought by parents. Can, or should, parents enter into a non-reporting/non-disclosure obligation of this kind on behalf of a child?

  2. In many cases, there’ll be a question over whether the negotiations themselves were oppressive; whether the church exerted an undue influence over the complainant. That obviously depends on the facts of each case, but given the nature of the church/member relationship the question at least arises.

  3. You might also argue that there should be a public policy against the legality or validity of an agreement not to disclose/report sexual assault, or sexual assault on a child.

But note that even if any or all of these arguments are accepted, that wouldn’t in itself mean that entering into such a non-reporting/non-disclsosure agreement would be a crime. People enter into illegal (in the sense of unforceable because contrary to public policy) contracts all the time; it’s not a crime to do so.

In the US, at least.

In the federal system, a person certainly can be charged for covering up any felony:

18 U.S.C. § 4 — Misprision of Felony

As noted, it’s not enough to simply fail to report a crime; the individual must take some affirmative steps to cover up the offense.

I’m surprised that victims, or parents of victims, don’t go to the police first, instead of complaining to the Church hierarchy.

Ah! I didn’t think this was the case. I don’t think it is in the UK..
Seems strange that it should be this way round when you consider the provisions of the US constitution.

The UK has also pretty much got rid of spousal privilege as well, the prosecution can compel a spouse to testify against their other half in cases of violence and sexual crimes against children etc.

From my own UK, secular view. A priest who finds out about sexual crimes against children through confession and fails to report it to the police or give evidence based on what he knows should be treated as a criminal.