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400 priests defrocked for abuse? There's more to the story

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 20, 2014

Some thoughts on the story that AP broke late Friday afternoon, reporting that Pope Benedict had approved the laicization of nearly 400 priests during the last 2 years of his pontificate:

  1. This is only the tip of the iceberg—but not in the way you might think. The AP story covers just 2002 and 2003. But Pope Benedict had been working steadily to purge predators from the ranks of the Catholic clergy. We don’t know the total number of priests defrocked during his pontificate, but it’s probably fair to assume that it is in the thousands, not hundreds. As John Allen observed, the world’s mass-media outlets are belatedly realizing that Benedict XVI was a champion of reform, not of the cover-up, on abuse cases. It will be increasingly difficult to continue serving up the accepted narrative, which suggests that the abuse scandal erupted under Benedict, and he tried to keep the lid on. It didn’t, and he didn’t. Insofar as Pope Francis is a reformer in this field, it’s because he’s continued what Benedict started.
  2. Allen also argues persuasively that in this case, an embarrassing U-turn by the Vatican press office was probably an innocent mistake. Questioned by reporters about the AP story, Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the press office, first issued a stout denial, and then, an hour later, confirmed that it was true. Working under pressure, Father Lombardi apparently confused two sets of statistics, Allen explains, and he corrected his mistake quickly. Still the fact remains that the Vatican’s chief spokesman was not thoroughly briefed on the issue, which was sure to draw intense media coverage. The McKinsey consultants who are studying the Vatican’s media strategy have plenty of work still to do.
  3. On the other hand, keep in mind that the Vatican made a thorough presentation to a UN panel on the handling of abuse cases, readily admitting the severity of the problem. Yes, it is galling to see the Holy See bowing before representatives of an organization that has become so consistently hostile to Catholicism. Still it is healthy that the Vatican made a public presentation somewhere admitting the need for accountability, and the UN panel provided an opportunity. It is noteworthy that Bishop Charles Scicluna, the former Vatican prosecutor in sex-abuse cases, was brought back from Malta to address the UN session; the Vatican had obviously recognized a need to have someone on hand who knew all the facts and could speak with authority about what had been done. It was not a flawless presentation by any means, yet it was a giant step toward transparency.
  4. Critics of the Church have long called for tougher disciplinary action against abusive priests, and they were not satisfied even by the news that hundreds of priests have been defrocked. In an interesting New York Times analysis of the case, reporter Laurie Goodstein explained:
    But those who treat sexual abusers question whether defrocking is the best method for protecting children. They say that while the abuser can no longer use his status to prey on victims, priests who have been defrocked for child abuse can gravitate to settings where no one knows their histories.

    Here’s the problem: Once a predator-priest has been laicized, he is beyond the disciplinary control of his ecclesiastical superiors; there is nothing more the Church can do. It’s true that he may remain a danger to society. But now he is living entirely in the secular world. Unless the Church is given police powers in civil society—which, I hope, nobody suggests—then society must protect itself.

    Which brings us to the question of whether civil society is doing enough to protect children from molesters: whether they are ex-priests or schoolteachers or truck drivers or entertainers. Church leaders have been justly denounced for failing to turn over evidence of sexual abuse by priests. But when the evidence has been available, have police and prosecutors done their job? It’s fair to say that Church officials should help public officials do their jobs; it’s not fair to say that the Church should do their jobs for them.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Jan. 21, 2014 7:11 PM ET USA

    As to point 4: If someone is court-martialed and thrown out of the armed forces for misconduct, it is ILLEGAL for the service to follow up on that person. Once separated from the service, the service cannot keep tabs on him. Same thing with the Church.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 21, 2014 12:02 PM ET USA

    All of the "solutions" to the gay priest problem revolve around civil or canonical remedies. The Church is a spiritual society, so why not a spiritual remedy. Penance is a spiritual remedy. Defrocking is only a punishment, but it need not be a penance or remedy. Sin requires penance and punishment. Here's a positively medieval and penitential solution: have the homosexual offenders retire to a monastic hermitage and live the remainder of their life in prayer and fasting. signed: Peter Damian

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 21, 2014 8:05 AM ET USA

    It would seem by Ms Goodstein's standard of judgement, the Church is damned if it does and equally damned if it doesn't. As for civil authorities, how many cases did we encounter where law enforcement officials actually abetted a chancery's cover-up for one reason or another? I'd say there were almost too many to count.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jan. 20, 2014 10:27 PM ET USA

    On number 4, it's really interesting what happens -- bishops get read the riot act when they don't laicize priests who have committed this horror. But now that it's revealed that they are being laicized en masse, the Church is criticized for not keeping track of them. Rock and hard place, anyone?