Ratzinger in '88: simplify laicization for priests guilty of "grave and scandalous conduct."

The plot thickens. John Thavis has the story:

The letter, written by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he was head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, expressed concern that the normal process for dealing with such priests -- which typically involved a request for dispensation from priestly obligations -- took too long and was seen more as a favor than a punishment.Eventually, with Cardinal Ratzinger's involvement, the penal procedures were simplified and sanctions were strengthened. But in 1988, the cardinal's suggestion of a "more rapid and simplified penal process" was rebuffed by the Vatican's canon law experts.(...)Cardinal Ratzinger's letter, dated Feb. 19, 1988, was addressed to the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, who at that time was Venezuelan Cardinal Jose Rosalio Castillo Lara.The doctrinal congregation was in charge of examining petitions for dispensation from priestly obligations, some of which involved priests guilty of grave crimes. Those offenses included sexual abuse, although sexual abuse was not specifically mentioned in Cardinal Ratzinger's letter.Cardinal Ratzinger's concern was that not enough attention was being given to penalties foreseen by church law for priest-offenders -- including "reduction to the lay state" -- because the penal process was too cumbersome.

Ratzinger wanted to see the process streamlined in some cases, "for the good of the faithful." Castillo Lara disagreed, saying such a change would "endanger the fundamental right of defense" in favor of "so-called 'pastoral' governance," a tendency he called "deplorable."A few initial thoughts: This letter offers a fascinating, but not totally clarifying glimpse into thelabyrinth of Rome's abusive-priest policies, prejudices--and politics. After all, this is the same Ratzinger who, ten years later, slapped the hand of ABC News reporter Brian Ross as he was peppering the cardinal with questions about Maciel. The same Ratzinger whose role in some cases of abusive priests was ambiguous at best. So what this letter offers may be little more than confirmation of what we already knew: Ratzinger's understanding of the scope and nature of the abuse crisis evolved over time, often in fits and starts.It's not terribly surprising that a canon lawyer would rebuff a request to work around what he sees as due process, but Castillo Lara's line about pastoral governance is a tell. That's a bias a lot of bishops shared--and confronted--in dealing with abuser-priests. Nor is it surprising that Ratzinger would have concluded that the laicization process for wayward priests needed to be reformed. After all, in 1988, he'd been prefect of the CDF for seven years. He must have been fielding complaints about this from bishops, many of whom felt hamstrung by Vatican procedures--or were confused about their canonical authority to handle abusive priests. A bishop might seek guidance from one Vatican office, which in turn kicked the request to another office, which sent the matter back to the requesting bishop.The process reminds me of the customer-service spiral in which we sometimes find ourselves when we have to phone tech-support for a computer problem. We call the manufacturer of the computer, who sends us to the maker of the software that's giving us trouble, who in turn sends us back to the computer company. No one wants to take responsibility. And if you're lucky enough to find a middle manager who recognizes the nature of your problem, he'll apologetically tell you that company policy makes it impossible for him to handle the issue himself, and regrettably his manager is unavailable just now. Please hold.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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