|A 1988 letter by then- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger indicated he sought tougher action far earlier than was thought.|
Ratzinger wrote letter on abuse in 1988
Future pope asked for simpler way to remove priests
VATICAN CITY — The Vatican released a letter yesterday showing Pope Benedict XVI sought as early as 1988 to find quicker ways to permanently remove priests who raped and molested children but was rebuffed.
A 1988 letter from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger could serve as the Vatican’s best evidence to date that the future pope wanted to quickly remove pedophile priests far earlier than previously known, but was stymied by church law.
The letter, republished in yesterday’s Vatican newspaper, shows that Ratzinger complained that church law made it exceedingly difficult to remove abusers if they didn’t request to be laicized voluntarily.
He asked to get around the problem by finding “a quicker and simpler procedure’’ than a cumbersome church trial to punish those priests who “during their ministry were found guilty of grave and scandalous behavior.’’
He was turned down on the grounds that the priests’ ability to defend themselves would be compromised.
The documentation was included in an article in L’Osservatore Romano that explained an upcoming revision of church law, which was last updated in 1983.
The article, penned by the number two official in the Vatican’s legal department, highlighted some of the problems and loopholes of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that presumably will be addressed in the upcoming revision.
The Vatican has long sought to portray Benedict as having done more than anyone else at the Vatican to crack down on pedophile priests.
But it has usually cited as his starting point a 2001 decision to have all abuse cases sent to his former office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Feb. 19, 1988, letter shows he sought changes far earlier as his office was already hearing from bishops who were having trouble dealing with pedophiles.
As the clerical abuse scandal erupted again earlier this year, Benedict was beset by accusations that, as prefect of the congregation, he repeatedly refused bishops’ requests to have abusers removed.
Ratzinger at the time was following laws and rules introduced by his predecessor Pope John Paul II, which largely left punishing such priests in the hands of local bishops, who for a variety of reasons often decided against conducting church trials.
John Paul had also made it tougher to leave the priesthood, hoping to stem the tide of thousands of priests who left in the 1970s to marry.
A consequence of that policy was that, as the priest sex abuse scandal arose in the United States, bishops were no longer able to sidestep the lengthy church trial necessary for so-called laicization.
Rather than conduct the church trials or report abusers to police, bishops often moved abusers from parish to parish or sent them for counseling — actions which later resulted in lawsuits by abuse victims that bankrupted many US dioceses.
Ratzinger’s request for faster procedures was rejected by Cardinal Jose Rosalio Castillo Lara, who headed the Vatican commission responsible for implementing the 1983 code.
In a March 10, 1988, letter to Ratzinger, Castillo Lara said simplifying the procedures “would endanger the fundamental right of defense’’ of the priest while straying from the church’s legal-based system, according to the letter reprinted in L’Osservatore.
In the end — amid the explosion of abuse cases in the United States and more recently in Europe — the Vatican in 2001, 2003, and most recently this summer took steps to streamline and formalize norms so that abusive priests could be removed quickly without a church trial.
The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University, said the 1983 code was problematic both in that it left it largely up to bishops to decide whether to intervene and at the same time discouraged them from taking tough action against abusers.
“What they want to do now is to make a penal law that is applied seriously, that will be more concrete and obligatory’’ for bishops, he said.
Monsignor Juan Ignacio Arrieta, the number two official in the Vatican’s legal department, said that in the coming weeks proposals for revisions of the code will be sent to Vatican consultants and advisers.
No date has been set for publication of the revised code, which has been under study for two years.