Here's one interesting look at one aspect we haven't seen before:
.- Previously unseen correspondence shows Pope Benedict XVI taking an active concern for “more rapid” prosecution of abusive priests, over two decades ago.
A letter from 1988, published for the first time on Dec. 2 in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, details the cardinal and future Pope's concern that Church officials were not able to act quickly enough to implement existing penalties in cases of priestly abuse.[...]
Cardinal Ratzinger noted in the letter that canon law allowed such priests to be punished through the immediate penalty of “reduction to the lay state.” But, he complained, the “complexity of the penal process” required by canon law presented “considerable difficulty” for local bishops attempting to revoke the priestly status of offenders.
Because of the difficulty involved in administering this punishment, Cardinal Ratzinger said that local bishops were choosing instead to seek a “dispensation from priestly obligations” for abusers. The cardinal noted that while this procedure also had the effect of laicizing priests, it was not an appropriate way to handle men who had disgraced the priesthood.
He pointed out the significant difference between the punishment of revoking a priest's faculties, and the virtual favor of dispensing such a person from priestly obligations. A dispensation from vows, he said, “by its very nature, involves a 'grace' in favor of the petitioner.”
“For the good of the faithful,” he wrote, the penalty of revoking priests' status “ought in some cases … to take precedence over the request for dispensation from priestly obligations,” through a “more rapid and simplified penal process.” He sought Cardinal Lara's advice as to how Church authorities might speed up the process while following canon law.
When I used to get into debates about this issue at Rod Dreher's old blog and elsewhere, one thing I would get frustrated about was the persistent belief by many people that the Church can simply ignore canon law whenever the circumstances merit it. This revelation (and do read the whole thing if you're interested) just illustrates one small aspect of that problem: canon law at the time didn't make it easy to reduce a priest, even one credibly accused of grave offenses, to the lay state if he had not been through a formal Church trial. That this was a problem was recognized by the future Pope Benedict XVI himself, and probably many others; but that they could simply ignore the present law instead of attempting the arduous process to amend it was never an option.
Of course, removing a priest from active ministry and making sure he was nowhere near children were two basic steps bishops could take when credible accusations of abuse were present, and some bishops failed to take even these basic steps. But the outrage over "the Vatican's" failure to defrock accused priests immediately was always, it would seem, misplaced.