ROME, December 2, 2010 ( – In 1988 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then-head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, attempted to bring reforms to the Code of Canon Law that would have forced local bishops to observe proper juridical procedures against priests accused of sexual abuse, and impose specific penalties against them if they were found guilty.

In an article published today by the Vatican’s press office, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa de Chinchetru, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, shows that Pope Benedict XVI has for decades attempted to reform the process by which “graviora delicta,” or grave crimes, including sexual abuse of minors by clerics, are tried in the Church.

Bishop Arrieta writes, “The initiative [for reform] sprang from a deeply-held conviction of the Pontiff, the fruit of years of personal experience, and from his concern for the integrity and the consistent application of Church discipline.”

The article highlights a letter, dated to 1988, by Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), asking the Vatican office responsible for the Church’s Code of Canon Law, for “a more rapid and simplified penal process.”

Ratzinger had argued that as the head of the office dealing with faith and morals, the grave crimes involving the sexual abuse of minors fell under his own jurisdiction. He asked that such cases be dealt with by his office, the CDF, rather than entirely locally by bishops in their own dioceses.

At that time, the cardinal’s request was refused. In a letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, dated March 10, 1988, the head of what was then called the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law, said, “I can well understand Your Eminence’s concern at the fact that the Ordinaries [local bishops] involved did not first exercise their judicial power in order to punish such crimes sufficiently, even to protect the common good of the faithful.”

“Nevertheless the problem seems to lie not with juridical procedure, but with the responsible exercise of the task of governance.”

The Pontifical Commission acknowledged the “deplorable” result of the then-recent changes to Canon Law that allowed bishops to apply what was called “pastoral governance” in such cases. This new principle, the Commission said, “ultimately is not pastoral at all, because it tends to obscure the due exercise of authority, thereby damaging the common good of the faithful.”

Nevertheless, the Commission said it would be “dangerous” to circumvent existing procedures, and that it preferred instead to “exhort those in positions of responsibility to implement the provisions of the law.”

In 1983, the Church issued a new Code of Canon Law that used the concept of “subsidiarity,” or decentralization, to mean in practice that the judicial power of the Church was placed almost exclusively into the hands of the local bishops. Approved as a “guiding principle” by the Second Vatican Council in 1967, Ratzinger believed subsidiarity had allowed too much local interpretation, and failed to serve the interests of objective justice, both in allowing for due process and the right of defense for those accused, and in requiring just penalties for those found guilty.

The U.S. bishops have admitted that before the scandals of widespread sexual abuse in the Church were revealed by the press in 2001, it was a common practice simply to move an offending priest from parish to parish after he had received “counseling,” normally without informing his new parishioners of his past.

Formal canonical proceedings were often considered too lengthy and cumbersome by bishops who preferred to handle accusations in-house. Until Ratzinger began to introduce reforms, Bishop Arrieta wrote, the norms of Canon Law were applied in local chanceries with “the constant fluidity that characterized the normative framework of the postconciliar period.”

One notorious case of the use of “pastoral governance” by local bishops was that of the archdiocese of Milwaukee, where the principle was applied in the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, who was proven to have sexually abused boys for years in a school for the deaf. In a radio interview, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the active homosexual poster-boy of the liberal “progressive” wing of the American Catholic Church, accused the Vatican and Ratzinger of having ignored the case until Murphy was too old to be tried.

After the secular media had taken up Weakland’s accusation against Ratzinger, however, it was revealed that Murphy’s victims had actually started complaining to authorities, including the Church, in the 1950s, but Weakland had waited until 1996 to inform the competent authorities in Rome.

In 1984, Weakland notoriously responded to a group of teachers in a Catholic school who were reporting sexual abuse by local priests, saying “any libelous material found in your letter will be scrutinized carefully by our lawyers.”

Bishop Arrieta noted that since the introduction of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, a “widespread anti-juridical bias [among bishops]… continues to exercise a degree of influence, giving rise, among other things, to the supposed difficulty of harmonizing the demands of pastoral charity with those of justice and good governance.”

The wording of the new Code, he said, “where tolerance is invoked, could be misinterpreted as seeking to dissuade the Ordinary from applying penal sanctions where the demands of justice require them.”

In 2007, Pope Benedict asked officials to re-examine the Church’s penal code. A draft document will be issued this week that will include the reforms that Cardinal Ratzinger had unsuccessfully requested 22 years ago.


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