Pope Benedict (photo: migul via Flickr)

Me,  earlier this week here at FDL:

It’s been a bad week for Pope Benedict. From Italy to Belgium to Washington DC, courts everywhere seem to be taking a hard look at some of the activities of the Catholic church, and they’re not liking what they’re seeing. . . .

Corruption investigations by the Italian courts have implicated a high Vatican official, Belgian police raided the Belgian church’s offices in a huge child sexual abuse investigation, and the US Supreme Court said that an abuse case in Oregon that names the Pope and the Vatican as defendants should go forward.

I ended with this:

And if all this news wasn’t bad enough, there’s one more thing that is giving Pope Benedict nightmares: there will be plenty more weeks like this to come.

Fast forward four days to Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. Underneath the headline Church Office Failed to Act on Abuse Scandal was a nice picture of Benedict from an earlier era, with a caption that summed it up pretty well: “Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1982. The office he led, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had been given authority over abuse cases in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm.”

Some, like Michael Sean Winters at NCR, look at this as yet another salvo in an anti-Catholic battle between the NYT and the Roman Catholic church. “The authors, Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger, and their editors, do not understand what they are talking about and, at times, put forward such an unrelentingly tendentious report, it is difficult to attribute it to anything less than animus.”

What Winters fails to notice, however, is the fact that the heaviest blows to the church in this piece came not from the reporters but from Roman Catholic bishops and academics:

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, an outspoken auxiliary bishop emeritus from Sydney, Australia, who attended the secret meeting in 2000, said that despite numerous warnings, top Vatican officials, including Benedict, took far longer to wake up to the abuse problems than many local bishops did.

Then there’s this from Archbishop Philip Wilson, now head of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (emphasis added):

Archbishop Wilson said in an interview that . . . he had to call Vatican officials’ attention to long-ignored papal instructions, dating from 1922, and reissued in 1962, that gave Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office, sole responsibility for deciding cases of priests accused of particularly heinous offenses: solicitation of sex during confession, homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality.

Archbishop Wilson said he had stumbled across the old instructions as a canon law student in the early 1990s. And he eventually learned that canonists were deeply divided on whether the old instructions or the 1983 canon law — which were at odds on major points — should hold sway.

If the old instructions had prevailed, then there would be no cause for confusion among bishops across the globe: all sexual abuse cases would fall under Cardinal Ratzinger’s jurisdiction.

(The Vatican has recently insisted that Cardinal Ratzinger’s office was responsible only for cases related to priests who solicited sex in the confessional, but the 1922 instructions plainly gave his office jurisdiction over sexual abuse cases involving “youths of either sex” that did not involve violating the sacrament of confession.)

Few people in the room had any idea what Archbishop Wilson was talking about, other participants recalled. But Archbishop Wilson said he had discussed the old papal instructions with Cardinal Ratzinger’s office in the late 1990s and had been told that they indeed were the prevailing law in pedophilia cases.

Even so, the CDF continued using the line “we didn’t have the authority to do handle these cases” well after Wilson’s discussions.

It’s stunning to see bishops putting themselves out there with criticisms like this. No “unnamed Vatican sources tell us . . .” or “senior Vatican officials say . . .” or “leaks from lawyers suing the Vatican revealed . . .” These are bishops, speaking on the record, lamenting the way in which then-Cardinal Ratzinger handled child abuse cases in his time at the CDF.

Bishops and canon law experts said in interviews that they could only speculate as to why the future pope had not made this clear many years earlier.

“It makes no sense to me that they were sitting on this document,” said the Rev. John P. Beal, a canon law professor at the Catholic University of America. “Why didn’t they just say, ‘Here are the norms. If you need a copy we’ll send them to you?’ ”

Nicholas P. Cafardi, a Catholic expert in canon law who is dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law, said, “When it came to handling child sexual abuse by priests, our legal system fell apart.” . . .

Mr. Cafardi, who is also the author of “Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops’ Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children,” argued that another effect of the 2001 apostolic letter was to impose a 10-year statute of limitations on pedophilia cases where, under a careful reading of canon law, none had previously applied.

“When you think how much pain could’ve been prevented, if we only had a clear understanding of our own law,” he said. “It really is a terrible irony. This did not have to happen.”

To the bishops we add two canon lawyers and professors at two major Catholic universities, again speaking on the record.

Nevertheless, I’m confident that some will join Winters and try to shoot the messengers at the NYT — they’ve done it before, and I’m sure they’ll do it again.

There is one glaring omission from this story, IMO: Father Thomas Doyle. Doyle is without a doubt the canon lawyer with the most experience on this subject, who read the riot act to the USCCB on abuse back in the 80s, and got shoved aside as an alarmist and a danger to the church, only to be proven right when the shit hit the fan. If I’m a reporter on a story like this, Doyle is the guy I’d call to get a reaction quote.  Nicholas Cafardi may have written the book on the USCCB and child abuse pre-Dallas, but if he is accurate in that book, Doyle is one of the main characters (I haven’t read the book).

Doyle wrote this on January 1, 2010:

Reflections from 25 Years of Experience
At the Start of the New Year
Thomas Doyle, J.C.D.

It is the beginning of 2010. Back many years ago when a new year would dawn, I remember when I would predict that this would be the last year of the Catholic sex abuse scandal. This year the Church will change. This year the bishops will shift gears and focus on the thousands of victims. This year the lawsuits will end because they will no longer be necessary.

Some would call that wishful thinking. Others may believe it to be delusion. In either case it was obviously magical thinking based on unreality.

None of my past hopes have come true and I doubt they ever will. The contrast between the reality of what has happened and continues to happen to victims at the direction of bishops, and what the bishops themselves claim they have accomplished is a chasm the depth of which defies the imagination.

There’s a lot more to Doyle’s New Year’s reflections [pdf], but I wish Goodstein and Halbfinger had interviewed him for their story.

I suppose that’s a nightmare for Benedict that will have to wait for another day.



I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

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