By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Amid ongoing debate over Pope Benedict XVI’s role in the sexual abuse crisis, the Vatican today claimed that a newly unearthed piece of correspondence shows that as far back as 1988, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pressed Rome to adopt “swifter and more simplified procedures” for punishing priests guilty of “grave and scandalous” conduct.
The conduct Ratzinger had in mind, the Vatican implied, included the sexual abuse of minors.
Ratzinger's recommendation was not adopted at the time, a senior Vatican official said, because of stalled debates over the penal section of the church’s Code of Canon Law. Yet Ratzinger kept at it, the official asserted, and today his suggested reforms have largely become binding church law.
The revelation came in an essay authored by Spanish Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, the number two official at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, which was published today in slightly abbreviated form by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, and is scheduled for full publication tomorrow in the semi-official journal Civiltà Cattolica.
Such high-profile play suggests that the Vatican regards Ratzinger’s 1988 letter as a sort of positive “smoking gun,” demonstrating that the future pope grasped the seriousness of the sex abuse crisis far earlier than previously believed.
English language versions of the essays were given to NCR by the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi.
Arrieta wrote that the Council for Legislative Texts has been working on a revision to the penal section of the Code of Canon Law since 2007, at the request of Benedict XVI. In the course of research, Arrieta wrote, a February 1998 letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger came to light. The letter was addressed to another Cardinal, José Rosal'o Castillo Lara, who at the time was in charge of the Vatican office which eventually became the Council for Legislative Texts.
In the letter, Ratzinger argues that in practice, changes to the Code of Canon Law adopted in 1983 meant that bishops around the world “are likely to experience considerable difficulty” in imposing penalties on priests who commit grave crimes.
Ratzinger does not specifically cite the sexual abuse of minors, but Arrieta implies it was understood.
For “the good of the faithful,” Ratzinger writes, Castillo should consider adopting “a more rapid and simplified penal process.”
By way of background, Arrieta explains that the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law was intended to implement in concrete legal terms the theological vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). When it came to the penal section of the law, Arrieta wrote, the accent was on subsidiarity and decentralization, meaning that responsibility for imposing punishment fell largely on local bishops and religious superiors.
Moreover, Arrieta wrote, the new code contained strong due process measures to protect the rights of the accused – so much so, he said, that in hindsight, they did not always “allow the collective interest to be effectively safeguarded.”
Though Arrieta does not spell it out, one key reason that bishops around the world typically did not try to formally laicize abuser priests during the 1980s and 1990s was because the legal procedures for doing so were perceived as lengthy, cumbersome, and uncertain.
It was against that backdrop, Arrieta suggests, that Ratzinger wrote the 1988 letter.
At the time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was responsible for handling petitions for dispensation from the obligations of priesthood. Ratzinger expressed frustration to Castillo that church law at the time considered such a step a “grace” granted to the priest, as opposed to a penalty.
Arrieta reports that Castillo wrote back to say that changing the penal section of the law would not only “endanger the fundamental right of defense,” but it might encourage bishops to rely on “pastoral” rather than judicial solutions.
Arrieta says that just a month later, in June 1998, Pope John Paul II issued a new constitution for the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus, which gave the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responsibility for “more serious offenses against morals.” Arrieta implies that Ratzinger prompted that move, and wrote that “it is quite unlikely a choice of this kind ... would have been implemented if the overall system had been working well.”
Arrieta concedes that the reform was imperfect, since it was never clear exactly what these “serious offenses against morals” were, or the circumstances under which bishops were obliged to turn them over to Rome. That gap was not filled until 2001, with another document from John Paul II titled Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela.
Arrieta notes that after that document appeared, Ratzinger pressed for “special faculties” from John Paul II, essentially exceptions to his own rules, allowing abusers to be removed from the priesthood without a church trial in especially serious cases.
Finally, Arrieta points to one additional sign of Ratzinger’s concern: His role in 1997 as a member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican department that oversees mission territories. According to Arrieta, Ratzinger backed granting the congregation “special faculties” to handle crimes by priests administratively rather than through formal canonical procedures, reflecting the “scarcity of resources of every kind” in many parts of the developing world.
In sum, Arrieta wrote, the “decisive action” of the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in attempting to streamline the church’s penal procedures, at least in part as a response to the scandal of sex abuse by priests, is “one of the ‘constant elements’ that have characterized his Roman years from the very first.”