Thursday, December 2, 2010

Misplaced outrage

During the height of the Scandal, and for quite a while afterward, many news outlets pointed a finger of blame at Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger, the stories usually said, was in charge of the CDF during many of the Scandal years. Why didn't he do more, move faster, and otherwise just fix things?

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.


Amanda Borenstadt said...

Very good post. This is informative! :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

As a vigorous advocate of constitutional law in the United States, I recognize as a valid point that the church could not violate its own canon law. We have citizens who become impatient with following the Constitution when it would seem convenient to do x, y or z thing, or do it more precipitately, but the Constitution IS the Constitution.

The only question I would pose is, why were there not more efforts to initiate the trial process that WOULD result in an appropriate penalty?

Red Cardigan said...

Siarlys, one reason was the failure of civil authorities to prosecute the priests in question. Where a priest was tried in civil court and convicted of crimes against children, the laicization process wasn't at all slow, in my understanding. But when prosecutors said, in essence, "Look, these are credible accusations, but they don't provide enough evidence for us to charge Fr. Thusandso with a crime," it was much harder for the Vatican to take unilateral action.

That's a side of the story that also isn't always considered, IMO.

Geoff G. said...

I have to say that the analysis here is quite correct insofar as I am familiar with the CIC.

As someone who spent a bit of time immersed in the goings on in English consistory courts prior to the Reformation, however, the "complexity of the penal process" strikes me as a rather hollow excuse, basically throwing up your hands and saying that canon law courts are too hard.

How much better would it have been for the diocese to fire up its ecclesiastical courts and actually deal with abusive priests the same way the criminal courts do?

In hindsight, we had several cases where the guilt of the accused was pretty much indisputable. A public tribunal conducted in a fair and open manner would have gone a considerable distance towards reassuring the faithful that the Church was dealing with these cases appropriately and inspired confidence in the ability of the Church to police itself.

"But what if a cause was brought and the priest acquitted?" Prosecutors face that possibility every day. People who are factually guilty are acquitted all the time. And it's not unreasonable to expect that some priests accused of abuse might actually be innocent. Surely a proper tribunal is the best way to sort this out.

My guess is that the reason ecclesiastical tribunals were never convened probably stems in part from a lack of expertise in most dioceses in conducting them (unlike the middle ages, ecclesiastical courts sit pretty rarely these days). Moreover, causes involving loss of clerical status would require the bishop to round up three priests trained in canon law.

Even so, it's striking how bishops around the world seem to have completely ignored the canon law machinery at their disposal and taken these cases entirely into their own hands.

Erin Manning:

Siarlys, one reason was the failure of civil authorities to prosecute the priests in question.

It's not necessarily fair to place the entire blame on the civil authorities. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least one instance (the Christian Brothers abuse cases in St. Johns, NF, Canada) where the civil authorities actively collaborated with the Church to cover up the abuse. In such a case, it's hardly fair to suggest that the Church was deferring to the civil authorities even as the civil authorities were busy deferring to the Church.