The Apostolic Penitentiary, or "tribunal of conscience", has been shrouded in secrecy ever since it was established by Pope Alexander III in 1179 and until now has never provided details of the cases it scrutinises.
They are considered so heinous by the Catholic Church that only the Pope can grant absolution to those who perpetrate them.
But in an effort to present a more transparent image and to encourage more people to make confessions, the tribunal held a two-day conference in Rome in which it discussed its purpose and inner workings.
"Even though it's the oldest department of the Holy See, it's very little known - specifically because by its nature it deals with secret things," said Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, the tribunal's second most senior official.
While priests and bishops can deal with confessions of sins as grave as murder or even genocide, the tribunal is reserved for crimes which are viewed by the Church as even more serious.
They include attempting to assassinate the Pope, a priest abusing the confidentiality of the confessional by revealing the nature of the sin and the person who admitted to it, or a priest who has sex with someone and then offers forgiveness for the act.
A third type of case that comes before the tribunal involves a man who directly participates in an abortion - even by paying for it - who then seeks to become a priest or deacon.
"That is an irregularity and it means he should not receive the ordination without a dispensation from the Pope," said Cardinal James Francis Stafford, the American who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary. (But what if he's already ordained? Does this then become a lesser sin?)
Defiling the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ, is also considered a sin of extreme gravity and one which is on the increase, the high-ranking members of the tribunal said.
Cardinal Stafford said there had been a rise in incidents in which people would receive Communion and then spit it out or otherwise desecrate it, sometimes in Satanic rituals.
In July last year an American academic, to make a point about freedom of thought and religion, drove a nail through a Communion wafer and then threw it in a rubbish bin.
Paul Myers, from the University of Minnesota, said later: "I pierced it with a rusty nail. Then I simply threw it in the trash. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your Lord."
Such sins, which can only be dealt with by the Pope, acting through the tribunal, bring automatic excommunication from the Church. If the Pope decides to grant absolution, the excommunication is lifted. (These are hardly the only offenses which bring automatic excommunication.)
A study by Italy's Sacred Heart University found that 47 per cent of Italians either never go to confession or last did so a long time ago.
It's kind of hard for me to get my head around the fact that the Church considers the actions of Paul Meyers to be a worse sin than genocide. Paul Meyers is not Catholic, never has been and never will be, so I guess Benedict won't be faced with lifting an excommunication.
One has to have a very Catholic mind set for this to make sense. Most of these grievous offenses are not sins against man, they are sins against sacraments, which is why it makes perfect sense to treat an aspirant to Holy Orders involved with an abortion more harshly than an ordained man, or to excommunicate people for attending 'illicit' ordinations.
These are sins against the proper reception of Holy Orders, making one more sinful than if one had committed murder.
In short, sacramental respect is more important than respect for one's fellow man and there for lack of sacramental respect is a more grievous offense. Paul Meyers would have committed a less grievous offense had he put a rusty nail into a priest--excluding the pope--than into a consecrated wafer. I guess this makes the Pope equal to a consecrated host in sacramental significance.
This is why soliciting sexual favors in the confessional or absolving one's sexual partner is determined to be more grievous than the sex itself. These are violations of the Sacrament of Penance and take the offender way beyond notions of immoral sexual predation. I suspect this last is the reason that pedophile priests were first investigated for sins against the Sacrament of Penance before any thought was given to secular accountability.
In the Church's reasoning, these violations of Canon Law were more important than the violations of the secular law. The behavior of most bishops followed this line of reasoning and they treated pedophilia as a crime against Canon Law opting for rehabilitation, silence, and forgiveness. I guess you could say they live in and operate from a totally different world view, one in which the sacred most assuredly trumps the secular.
The on going battle in Ireland over the fate of Bishop Magee is following this pattern of thinking. Since Bishop Magee didn't violate any of the 'biggies' in his mishandling of sexually abusive priests, his immediate superior Cardinal Brady doesn't think Bishop Magee should stand down. Cardinal Brady thinks Bishop Magee's apology is enough to show his remorse and willingness to follow the secular rules in the future and put the safety of children first.
Cardinal Brady's willingness to forgive Bishop Magee is not going over well in Ireland. Most laity don't buy the logic in the mindset which places Canon Law over secular law. I wonder how many of the laity actually think desecrating a host is more grievous than genocide, or that abortion in the case of an ordinand somehow needs the absolution of a pope, but the transmission of AIDS by a bishop to unsuspecting multiple partners doesn't.
The more I think about these 'most grievous' sins, the more I begin to understand why the Apostolic Penitiary has remained in the background for a millennium. It really does represent a different world and a different mindset. No wonder abuse victims have trouble understanding the Church's response in the pedophile crisis. It's unique to a church dancing to a different drum. It's a church which defines sacraments and sacramental authority as having more intrinsic worth than people. Sometimes Catholic identity comes with a steep price.
I wonder what Jesus would think about placing more importance on sacrament than people. I think I know.