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Catholic World News

Cardinal Ratzinger pushed for swifter dismissal of abusive priests

December 02, 2010

In 1988, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger unsuccessfully sought changes to the Code of Canon Law in order to secure swifter dismissal of priests “guilty of serious and scandalous behavior,” according to correspondence published in the December 2 edition of L’Osservatore Romano.

The revelation appears to provide a direct refutation of charges that the future Pontiff had been lax in his response to sex-abuse allegations. In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger's move for stricter disciplinary action came more than a decade before the public exposition of the sex-abuse scandal. The New York Times notes:

At the height of the sexual abuse crisis last spring, Benedict’s defenders said he had long argued for disciplining priests who had been found guilty of grave misconduct, while other Vatican officials advocated more lenience. The new documentation is the most comprehensive made public to date supporting those claims.

Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta Ochoa de Chinchetru, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, noted that in 1988, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had the faculty of dispensing priests from celibacy and other obligations assumed at ordination. In a February 19, 1988 letter to Cardinal Rosalio José Castillo Lara, then president of the Pontifical Commission of Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law, Cardinal Ratzinger observed that some of these priests were “guilty of serious and scandalous behavior” and that the Code “provides for the imposition of certain penalties, not excluding the reduction to the lay state.”

“These measures, in the opinion of this Congregation [of the Doctrine of the Faith], should, in some cases, for the good of the faithful, precede the eventual granting of priestly dispensation, which, by its nature, is like a ‘grace,’” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote. “Some ordinaries meet many difficulties” in imposing canonical penalties on such priests because of the “complexity” of the Code’s procedures, Cardinal Ratzinger added, and thus he requested “more rapid and simplified procedures.”

Commenting on this letter, Bishop Arrieta emphasized that Cardinal Ratzinger felt “repugnance” that offenders should experience the return to the lay state as a “grace” of dispensation granted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rather than as a “punishment” imposed by bishops and religious superiors.

Three weeks later, Cardinal Castillo Lara replied that the problem did not lie with the Code of Canon Law itself, but with the failure of bishops and religious superiors to implement the Code’s penal provisions. The cardinal noted that the procedures for dismissing a priest from the clerical state was simpler in the 1983 Code than in the 1917 Code and added that he did not wish to undermine “the fundamental right of defense” of an accused priest. Cardinal Castillo Lara bluntly concluded that in a time of “confusion of consciences and the relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline,” as in other times of crisis in the Church’s history, the Church’s bishops “have failed to exercise their juridical power to protect the greater good of the salvation of souls.”

Bishop Arrieta then noted that Pope John Paul II granted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith more extensive authority in 1988 to punish priests guilty of “more serious crimes committed against morality” but that this authority had to be exercised within the legal context described by Cardinal Castillo Lara. The Congregation’s authority did not become “effective,” Bishop Arrieta commented, until the promulgation of new norms in 2001. These norms were revised in July.

Bishop Arrieta also revealed that in 1997, Cardinal Ratzinger successfully requested that the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples be granted greater authority to deal with “other types of disciplinary problems” in the world’s mission dioceses.

Over a period of 20 years, Cardinal Ratzinger has consistently sought the revision of the Church’s discipline of canonical punishments, Bishop Arrieta concluded.


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