PAPA RATZINGER AND CLERGY ABUSE
Thomas Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.
The London Observer ran a story on Sunday (Pope obstructed sex abuse inquiry) that gives the impression that Pope Benedict intentionally devised a way for Church authorities to maintain deep secrecy about clergy sex abuse cases and therefore obstruct the civil law processes aimed at investigating accusations against clerics.
The story is misleading! True, it is based on an actual document, officially issued under Cardinal Ratzingers name and with the approval of Pope John Paul II. But this document was publicly issued on May 18, 2001 and amounted to a set of procedural norms for processing cases involving a select group of canonical crimes, including clergy sexual abuse of minors. The document was preceded by a special letter issued by Pope John Paul II on April 30, 2001. The thorny provision in the procedural norms that caught the London journalistss attention was that which imposed the Pontifical Secret on those charged with processing such cases. The secrecy extended to all cases included in the document and not just sexual abuse allegations.
Imposition of Pontifical secrecy on criminal processes of this type is standard operating procedure in the Vatican. This was not an attempt to obstruct civil justice nor to shield accused clerics from facing civil law consequences for their actions. Those who have interpreted the document in this way either misunderstand the way the Vatican courts operate or intentionally chose to apply their own subjective interpretations to either the papal letter or the procedural document. Laws passed by the Vatican are for internal church issues. Such laws do not necessarily harmonize with the civil laws of this of that secular nation. If there is a conflict, civil laws are to be obeyed so long as they are not immoral or contrary to Gods law. In this case there is nothing obstructionist about imposing secrecy on internal church processes.
The Observer story gives the impression that the Churchs claim of jurisdiction over clergy sex crimes amounts to an assertion of exclusivity over such cases which is tantamount to trying to act above civil law. This is not what the document says nor was this the intent of those who framed it and he who signed off on it, namely the now reigning pope. The flap over this decree is reminiscent of the flare-up from the publication of the 1962 set of procedural norms that preceded the document in question. If anything, each document reflects the Vaticans obsession with secrecy, especially when it comes to ultra-embarrassing issues such as clergy who sexually abuse minors. On the other hand, there are good reasons for a certain measure of secrecy such as the sensitivies of victims and the reputations of those who may be erroneously accused. Yet the obessessive secrecy has only made matters worse over the years. Society demands transparency especially when it comes to a crime as heinous as rape of children and minors. The Church cannot be so arrogant as to assert that it is above the civil law. Thats the impression given by the 1962 and 2001 documents, both issued from the department formerly headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. Both documents have enabled some Church officials to obstruct justice but that was not the intent of the Church lawmakers when the documents were issued. Consequently, framing this letter, which was openly promulgated, as an attempt by Cardinal Ratzinger to obstruct U.S. justice, is inaccurate and misleading. Such an assertion further confuses the issue, unnecessarily ratchets up emotions and fuels already record level hostilities between sex abuse victims and the hierarchy.
While we are on the subject of Papa Ratzinger and clergy sex abuse, its true that as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he made a public comment in 2002 that clearly reflected the Vatican party line. At the end of the tumultuous year that saw the clergy abuse scandal reach critical mass in the U.S., he repeated the line that less than 1% of priests were abusers and offered his opinion that the news media hyped the problem.
However, more recent events seem to suggest that the Cardinal Prefects understanding of the problem was significantly enlightened between 2002 and today. In 2004 when a small delegation of lay members of the National Review Board visited various Vatican officials to discuss their findings prior to issuing the now famous report, they found Cardinal Ratzinger to be the most receptive. The popes own ambassador in the U.S., Archbishop Montalvo, never even saw fit to acknowledge several overtures from the U.S. Bishops own committee. Cardinal Ratzinger met and listened. Perhaps the most remarkable observation was that he actively listened and gave the impression of cognitively digesting the disturbing information, which, as some have observed, is not a common trait among Vatican middle and upper level management.
Second.....and certain no less important, is the recent development in the case of the accused head of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. The canonical investigation into charges of sexual abuse of minors by Maciel was short-circuited by Cardinal Ratzinger but under orders from Pope John Paul II. Shortly before the popes death, the investigation was re-opened by Cardinal Ratzinger and reliable sources indicate that this wont be a whitewash but an honest inquiry.
Its all too true that Cardinal Ratzinger, during his years as John Paul IIs doctrinal enforcer, issued plenty of edicts and statements that offended and seriously hurt many both in the Church and outside of it. It is also painfully true that during his tenure as Prefect of the CDF dozens of honest, dedicated and even brilliant scholars were treated shamefully and subjected to unjust processes that reflected anything but Christian compassion and openness.
Yet one gets the impression that Cardinal Ratzingers conservatism and zeal for orthodoxy were grounded in his intellectual convictions of what he believed Catholicism to be all about and not a malicious craving to recreate a medieval clerical monarchy. One may not agree with some or all of his positions, but now that hes the pope, it may be best to avoid burying him in a heap of negativity based on his past track record, and hope that the Holy Spirit will help him to make good the very words he spoke at his inauguration:
My real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.
There is good reason to believe that Pope Benedict XVI will not turn from the most serious and damaging single problem facing the Church, the devastation of the bodies and souls of minors and vulnerable adults by sexually abusive clerics and stone-walling hierarchs. Anyone, lay, religious or cleric, who has ever been immersed in true pastoral ministry, knows painfully well that doctrinal purity and rigid orthodoxy are useless to a deeply wounded soul. The only truly orthodox response is not a lecture on obedience but a compassionate embrace. Thats what Christ would do because thats what He did when He was physically with His people at the beginning of this adventure we now call Church.
We can only hope and pray that under Pope Benedict XVI, Papa Ratzinger, the Church will gradually be identified not as an ideological monolith or as a closed-in remnant of doctrinal purists, but as a living, Body of Christ, vivified not by doctrinal rigidity and arrogant orthodoxy but by the unqualified compassionate love that Jesus showed to all who came to Him. Many will look for signs of the Churchs future in what the pope does in the days and months to come. During his inaugural mass the deacon chanted to moving Gospel passage that recounts Jesus commission to the apostles to Feed my lambs. Perhaps the clearest sign that Papa Ratzinger has taken these words to heart will be his response to those once faith-filled men and women whose bodies and souls have been torn asunder by those in whom they placed all of their spiritual trust.