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VATICAN CITY (RNS) In an open letter on the clergy sex abuse crisis roiling the Catholic Church in Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI cited the chronic failure of church leaders to enforce the church’s own law as a principal cause.
Irish bishops, Benedict wrote on Saturday (March 20), had “failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse,” thus enabling abusers to strike again.
In other words, the church had a way to protect children, but failed to use it. Now, as the scandal spreads across Europe, Vatican officials are trying to ensure that those procedures are more widely known — and more reliably practiced.
“The church is quite prepared to deal with this; it has throughout the centuries,” Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and now head of the Vatican’s supreme court, told Catholic News Service earlier this month.
“There is a whole wisdom in the canonical tradition on how to deal with these things, obviously to protect the person who was alleged to have been victimized, to protect the priest who is accused and to protect the whole church,” Burke said.
Veterans of the clergy abuse scandal that erupted in the U.S. church eight years ago hope the message is finally registering at the Vatican.
“It’s fair to say that if canonical procedures had been followed, we could have avoided this whole mess,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, former dean of Duquesne Law School, who sat on the panel that drafted abuse prevention policies for the U.S. bishops in 2002.
Under long-established church law, Cafardi said, priests who sexually abuse children can be punished with “dismissal from the clerical state,” making them ineligible to continue ministering as priests.
But U.S. bishops long neglected their power to investigate and punish canonical crimes, Cafardi said, out of fear that the penal process would be too time-consuming, or that it would generate material that could be used as evidence in civil lawsuits.
Some, including Benedict himself, also point to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which Benedict has said fostered a spirit of “anarchic utopianism” in parts of the church.
In his letter to Irish Catholics, the pope cited “a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches” that arose from Vatican II.
Most U.S. bishops in that period chose to treat priestly pedophilia as an illness rather than a crime, Cafardi has written, which often made it possible for perpetrators to regain access to children.
Yet the practice was hardly confined to U.S. dioceses. In 1980, Pope Benedict himself, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and serving as archbishop of Munich, agreed to accept the transfer of the Rev. Peter Hullermann, an accused pedophile from another German diocese, so that the priest could receive treatment in Munich.
Shortly after beginning his therapy, Hullermann was reassigned to work in a parish, a decision for which a former Ratzinger underling has claimed “full responsibility.” Five years later, Hullermann was again accused of sexually abusing minors, and was convicted the following year, although he continued to serve as a priest until the Munich archdiocese suspended him on March 15.
In 2001, the failure of bishops to deal effectively with predatory priests prompted Pope John Paul II to take all such cases out of their hands and give jurisdiction to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which was then headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI.
The move was intended to ensure a more rigorous enforcement of canon law, but some critics have cast it as an attempt to interfere with secular justice. They cite a 2001 CDF letter imposing “pontifical secret” on abuse cases as evidence that the future pope conspired to conceal pedophilia.
Church officials and canon lawyers, however, insist that the document was never intended to impede criminal proceedings in civil courts.
“All pontifical secrecy means is that the records of the canonical process are to be kept confidential,” Cafardi explained. “It never meant that you were not allowed to report a crime to the civil authorities.”
In the open letter, Benedict told the Irish bishops that they should “continue to cooperate with civil authorities in their area of competence.” The CDF official in charge of sex abuse investigations recently told an Italian interviewer that his office instructs bishops to respect local laws requiring them to turn pedophile priests over to civil authorities.
Other church officials have indicated that the Vatican will press bishops for more rigorous application of canon law against clerical sex abuse.
Burke told a conference in Rome this month that the Vatican should prepare detailed canonical guidelines for bishops to use in their preliminary investigations of sex abuse allegations.
Cafardi, for one, said such universal rules would be a big step forward.
“You could handle this episcopal conference by episcopal conference,” Cafardi said, “but this is a universal problem in the church, and it calls for a universal solution.”
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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