Polonius

To thine own self be true

The pope and the paedophiles

Posted by Polonius on 28 March, 2010

Stories about the pope’s involvement in covering up the sexual abuse of children have been circulating for a couple of weeks now, but I haven’t had time to consider them properly until now. I don’t recall where I first read the accusations that have been doing the rounds recently, but my sources include Christopher Hitchens at Slate, Johann Hari at The Independent and Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Heather Horn at the Atlantic Wire summarises some key reports of the issues.

In 1962, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly known as the Inquisition), issued an instruction, Crimen sollicitationis to all bishops worldwide. Its primary purpose was to provide a procedure for dealing with priests who seduce people during confession, but it had a footnote that said that practising homosexual priests and priests who abuse children should be treated the same way. Crimen sollicitationis said that all such crimes were to be reported to CDF itself. It also said that the very existence of Crimen sollicitationis itself was to be kept confidential.

What purports to be the full text of Crimen sollicitationis is available on-line. I’ve read a few legal contracts and acts of Parliament in my time, and they are models of clarity compared to this. But from a superficial review, it appears that the (US) National Catholic Reporter is correct in saying that

The 1962 document would not have tied the hands of a bishop, or anyone else, who wanted to report a crime by a priest to the police.

Nor does it require anyone to report a crime to the police.

Paragraph 74 under Title V of Crimen sollicitationis delegates to “the regular superior” the administration of canon law in cases of “the worst crime” of homosexuality, paedophilia or bestiality. But it also requires that CDF be kept informed of the results. Joseph Ratzinger was head of CDF from 1981 to 2005.

Ratzinger himself issued a new letter, De delictis gravioribus, in 2001. Again, the purported text is available on-line. This requires the local “ordinary or hierarch” to conduct an initial investigation, then inform CDF, who will decide whether “special circumstances” warrant the CDF’s direct intervention, or whether the matter can be left in the hands of the locals. As in Crimen sollicitationis, the involvement of the secular authorities is neither required nor forbidden, it is simply not mentioned. In the US, at least, it has been policy since 2002 to report all allegations to the police.

To summarise, if bishops around the world obeyed their instructions, Ratzinger’s office would have been informed of all allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. From the time he took up the post in 1981 until 2001, his office would only be told after the local church authorities had dealt with the matter to their satisfaction. From 2001 until 2005, his office would be consulted before the case was decided.

There are some specific cases in which the now pope was involved. A child, Wilfried F., was abused by a priest in Germany. The priest (who, unlike the victim, seems to have been granted total anonymity) was moved from one parish to another by order of then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger. He then preyed on further victims. No evidence has emerged that Ratzinger knew of these further offences, though his deputy did.

The second specific case involves Lawrence C. Murphy of Wisconsin. He abused 200 deaf children. Despite the pleas of Wisconsin bishops, now-Cardinal Ratzinger swept this under the carpet.

A third specific case, this time in Mexico, was reported by Jamie Doward in the Observer shortly after Ratzinger became pope in 2005. Nine alleged victims accused Marcial Maciel of abuse. Ratzinger could, perhaps, be given some credit in this case as it is suggested he sought to have Maciel dealt with but was overruled by his papal predecessor.

According to the Doward article,

4,450 of the Roman Catholic clergy who served between 1950 and 2002 have faced credible accusations of abuse.

Another study, produced last year by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, reported that there had been 10,667 victims of abuse over the last 50 years in the US alone.

It seems likely that a significant proportion of those cases occurred on Ratzinger’s watch. If even a few of those were inappropriately concealed from the secular authorities, it seems likely that at least some of the victims will now come forward. On the other hand, if Ratzinger is innocent, he has the power to prove it. If anyone has been sworn to secrecy, as in Ireland, and if the oath took the form prescribed in Paragraph 27 of Crimen sollicitationis, that oath is binding:

… unless a particular faculty or dispensation has been expressly given … by the Supreme Pontiff.

If the pope has nothing to fear then he, and he alone, can release them from any oaths. Until he does that, there will always be the suspicion that some victims have been silenced by the fear of excommunication.

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