For five years until July 2017, Cardinal Gerhard Müller oversaw the handling of cases of priests accused or found guilty of clerical sex abuse.

In the following exclusive comments to the Register via email, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith discusses how the Vatican has dealt with the tragic issue, responds to criticism of Pope Francis’ handling of some individual cases (referred to in my recent article here), and shares insights on what could be done better.

The German cardinal is certain that Pope Francis fully accepts the zero tolerance policy toward proven cases of clergy sexual abuse. But he also believes it is imperative that canonical processes by carried out “according to the current discipline,” that this area of the CDF be staffed by “canonically well-educated priests,” and that interference in abuse cases by third parties — which has happened a number of times during this pontificate — must be avoided “as much as possible” as “it causes great harm to the Church and is an injustice to the victims.”

Another key point the Cardinal makes is that the often excessive length of time in dealing with cases can be resolved by employing well qualified and able officials. Three of Cardinal Müller’s staff, two of whom dealt with abuse cases and who he considered very able, were dismissed by the Pope. The then-prefect wasn’t given a reason. “You cannot part with your best horses and at the same time demand the carriage goes at a higher speed,” the cardinal says.

At a meeting this week of the C9 Group of cardinals on curial reform, “various options” were discussed to shorten procedures in cases of sexual abuse by clergy. One option being considered is to decentralize procedures by setting up regional tribunals that would hear cases under the auspices and guidance of the CDF. 


Your Eminence, at the time of your leaving the CDF, how much had this area been reformed so that the congregation could better handle such cases?

Any sexual abuse of a child or adolescent is a particularly horrible crime, especially as victims often suffer for a lifetime. The priest is “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), who, like the good shepherd, watches over his flock. He shall defend it against evil with his life if necessary, never becoming a wolf himself and so hurt the sheep. Everything must be done to ensure that no candidate for the priesthood with a pedo-criminal tendency ever becomes a priest. Whoever does such an unimaginable injustice as a priest must always be excluded from the clerical state, and indeed forever. This is the measure by which ecclesiastical authority can restore justice to the victim. Of course, no power in the world can redress the injustice. Only God alone can restore peace to our hearts. But just as the state’s criminal trials are conducted according to a well-regulated procedure, so canonical processes must also be carried out according to the current discipline. This includes the defendant’s right to defense. The proportion between offense and sentence must be respected. In the practice of the courts, it is sometimes difficult, after some decades, to clarify the facts. There have also been false accusations.

The CDF needs more canonically well-educated priests, able in different languages, ​​who can carry out the procedures in a timely manner. Unfortunately, many competent employees were dismissed for no reason and against my express will. Then one hears complaints about the Congregation because of the lack of rapidity of procedures. You cannot part with your best horses and at the same time demand the carriage goes at a higher speed. The laws of logic and physics are also valid in the Church.


The Holy Father has been criticized for not acting enough, or at all, or even promoting those clergy or prelates accused of abuse. What was your own estimation of Pope Francis’ handling of this issue?

Pope Francis has fully and completely accepted and continued the policy of the so-called zero tolerance of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is no alternative. The fact that the same people are now campaigning against him, who before hailed him beyond measure, I think is mendacious and unfair. Criticism must always remain objective and must never violate the person. The Pope is the representative of Christ and has always earned our highest respect. Above us all, only Christ is the judge.

I cannot say anything about individual cases because I am bound by official secrecy. But I can say that our employees do their work for the good of the Church with the greatest diligence and precision. Only when some responsible persons continued to argue that dismissal from the clerical state should be avoided as much as possible did difficulties arise, because it is not about the mercy for the perpetrators, but about the justice for the victims. Some people still do not realize that the well-being of the young is the highest standard and that the credibility of the Church and the good reputation of many priests who have nothing to do with the crimes is at stake, but anyhow have a shared responsibility for the horrendous misconduct of some of their confreres. Their good pastoral work is thereby burdened and hindered.


What, to you, could be done better to ensure this difficult area is properly and justly dealt with?

The Congregation has been doing highly skilled work for years, and deserves the highest gratitude from all concerned. Difficulties for the Church always arise when the autonomy of judicial proceedings is interfered with and any gentleman’s agreement is sought outside the due process. The recourse procedure regarding this at the Collegio within the CDF, whose chairman is incomprehensibly not the Prefect, should be restricted to the control of the formal correctness of the procedure in the dioceses and of the first instance of the CDF. To interfere with the dismissal — if they’re proven guilty — out of pity for the perpetrator should be avoided as much as possible; it causes great harm to the Church and is an injustice to the victims. Such an offense cannot be equated with the mistakes and sins that we all commit. Of course, any guilt can be forgiven the penitent sinner. But there can be no claim that a pastor return to the position of trust that he has so abhorrently abused.