There’s an aspect to the current press coverage of Pope Benedict that I don’t understand.
Yes, I know why they’re doing it. Because they need scandal to sell papers. Because they have antipathy towards the Catholic Church (except when it is in their interests no to, like when Pope Benedict visited America). And, yes, because they don’t understand what they’re reporting on.
Why are they so laser-focused on the issue of laicization or “defrocking”?
Remember Jesus’ parable about the two sons, one of whom said he would go work in the field but didn’t and the other of whom said he wouldn’t go work in the field but did?
The first son was right on symbol but wrong on substance. The second was wrong on symbol but right on substance.
Of course, the best thing is to be right on symbol and right on substance, but if it’s a choice between one of the two, Jesus clearly indicated what was more important: substance over symbol.
How does that apply to the current scandal?
If you look at the American cases that the press is currently hyperventilating about, they had all been removed from pastoral ministry long before the cases ever got to Cardinal Ratzinger’s department at the Vatican.
These weren’t cases where the priests’ bishops were moving them around in a kind of shell game, keeping them with regular access to children. They had been removed from that situation (though the Wisconsin priest, Lawrence Murphy, apparently still had some contact with the Milwaukee deaf community—which Archbishop Bertone at the CDF insisted be stopped at once).
So—in terms of substance—the Church had already largely dealt with the matter. It had deprived these priests of the pastoral assignments that put them in contact with potential victims.
Dismissing them from the clerical state—laicizing or defrocking them—would would be a less urgent matter, and one that is in significant measure symbolic (since even a laicized priest retains the powers he gained from his ordination, even if he is only allowed to exercise a few of them and only in emergency circumstances, like hearing a deathbed confession).
Yes, there are other canonical consequences—ones that would be painful to the priest (assuming he was interested in remaining a priest), like not being able to lawfully celebrate Mass any more, even in private (which assumes he cares enough about the Church’s rules to obey such a stricture; some don’t, such as LifeTeen founder Dale Fushek, who set up his own independent worship center once he was laicized).
While the Church obviously sees value in laicizing gravely errant priests (or the procedure wouldn’t be on the books), the burning issue for people concerned about children should not be “How quickly was this guy laicized?” but “How quickly was this guy removed from pastoral ministry?”
My suspicion is that the press is glossing over this issue for the reasons stated above (greed, malice, ignorance), but they seem unduly focused on the question of how quickly Cardinal Ratzinger’s office moved with respect to the laicization of priests whose bishops had already (before the case got to the CDF) taken measures to keep them from harming others.
I think that by focusing on the laicization issue the press is positively misleading the public by conveying the impression that the Church hadn’t yanked these guys from their pastoral assignments. My fear is that a lot of people will walk away with the totally false impression that unless a priest has been “defrocked” then the Church is allowing him to maintain regular contact with victims through a pastoral assignment, and that by not laicizing them at once Cardinal Ratzinger was turning a blind eye and allowing them to go on raping children in parishes with impunity. (Indeed, that seems to be exactly what Andrew Sullivan has been claiming.)
But that’s not the case—not even with Lawrence Murphy, who as far as was known when his case came up in the 90s (and as far as is known today) hadn’t molested anyone in two decades.
So why rage over how fast or whether these men were laicized if their bishops had already taken steps to stop the threat they posed? (Steps that in the Murphy case the CDF said had to be strengthened at once.)
I’m not saying that there isn’t room for criticism here, even vigorous criticism, or that these guys shouldn’t have been laicized, or that the CDF shouldn’t have acted more swiftly than it did.
Criticism—even vigorous criticism—is one thing, but blind, seething rage is another.
Blind, seething rage would be a more appropriate response to keeping these monsters in ordinary parish assignments, but they have been removed from that situation, there is more room for the judicial process to play out.
And, indeed, that’s the American church’s current policy: Yank a priest from ministry at the first credible accusation and then deal with longer-term canonical questions afterwards.
So I don’t get it.
I’m not seeing the CDF saying to leave these priests in pastoral assignments, and so while I see room for criticism, I don’t see a basis for the kind of apoplexy that the press is experiencing.