Benedict and Clergy Sexual Abuse: Decisive and Aggressive Action

Holy Father’s record refutes critics’ claims that he mishandled the explosive issue.

Bishop Charles Scicluna, former promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Bishop Charles Scicluna, former promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (photo: CNA photo)


VATICAN CITY — In a media narrative that was largely predictable, news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was quickly followed by a flood of headlines linking him to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.

"Legacy Marred by Sex-Abuse Scandal," read a headline on the ABC News website. "Complicit in Child Sex-Abuse Scandals," said another from The Guardian, which quoted victims’ groups.

Amid the fray, however, other voices have taken a singularly opposite view, instead crediting the Holy Father with aggressively and decisively addressing a problem that came to light well before he was elected to the papacy.

In part because of high-profile cases like those in Ireland and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in the United States, and the one involving Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, Benedict’s pontificate could not escape association with the stigma of clergy sexual abuse. However, his supporters insist that the way in which he dealt with the crisis was both exemplary and exceptional and that history will be much kinder to him than his critics have been.

Those who defend Pope Benedict’s treatment of the Church’s sexual-abuse scandal cite his multiple meetings with victims, the first by a pope; his strongly worded statements and apologies, in particular his eight-page "Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland" in which he criticized not just the perpetrators, but bishops who had mishandled the situation; his work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and, later, as pope in improving the way sexual-abuse cases were handled by the Vatican and his swift, direct action in the case of Father Maciel.

"Pope Benedict XVI will certainly be remembered for his extraordinary reply and response to the very sad phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy," auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, former promoter of justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Vatican Radio Feb. 18.

The promoter of justice is responsible for investigating more serious crimes, including claims of clergy sexual abuse of minors. After Bishop Scicluna was elevated last year to the episcopate and returned to his native Malta, he was succeeded as promoter of justice by Father Robert Oliver, a canon-law expert from the Archdiocese of Boston.

"In his letter to the Church in Ireland in 2010," Bishop Scicluna said, "in his pastoral visits to the United States, to Malta, to Australia and the United Kingdom [Pope Benedict] met and showed great compassion to the victims of abuse. His words will remain with us as a clear sign of the determination of the Church to respond adequately to abuse and also to safeguard the innocence of our children and young people."


Benedict’s Example

American Cardinal William Levada, prefect emeritus of the CDF, echoed those sentiments during a 2012 symposium on the sexual abuse of minors for bishops and priests when he lauded Benedict for his personal example of listening to victims.

"I think it is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of this example for us bishops and for us priests in being available to victims for this important moment in their healing and reconciliation," Cardinal Levada said. "It was, after all, at the hands of an anointed representative of the Church that they suffer this abuse. No wonder, then, that they tell us how important it is for them that the Church, now again through her anointed representatives, hears them, acknowledges their suffering and helps them see the face of Christ’s true compassion and love."

J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer and chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, agreed. Although he said Benedict’s work on the document Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (SST) when he was head of the CDF had far-reaching implications in insuring that the Church acts with integrity in clergy sexual-abuse cases, he said the love and compassion the Holy Father expressed meant even more. "It was a means of his speaking from his heart to theirs. SST is hugely important, but it is an administrative piece that serves the evangelical imperative, and that compassion he demonstrated set the entire Church in a direction and also pointedly touched real human souls who had suffered."


New Regulations

Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, promulgated April 30, 2001, by Blessed John Paul II, revises the kinds of canonical crimes handled by the CDF to include the sexual abuse of minors by clerics and provides that all cases involving clerical sexual abuse of minors be reported to the CDF, which in turn coordinates a response by all Church authorities.

Flynn said Benedict greatly influenced the document as prefect of the CDF and, as pope, amended and strengthened it. "That document from an administrative, legislative perspective is a great piece of his legacy. And it’s strong. It ensures that cases of a grave nature go to the Holy See and are addressed clearly with as much concern as canon law can give them. … Benedict ensured that the issue of sexual abuse of minors would be addressed prudently and seriously."

The document, Flynn continued, outlines a process in which the Holy See became the principal arbiter in certain cases. Under it, some casework is done at the diocesan level, but at the behest of the CDF and with some oversight from the pope himself. "It drew some of the most serious issues the Church faces into the heart of the Church itself."

L. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs, Colo., attorney whose firm has been involved in thousands of cases on behalf of more than 20 dioceses, said Benedict also saw that taking each case through a trial with full-blown due process was not always necessary. "He put together procedures so that, in 60% of the cases, they were able to laicize or discipline priests by administrative proceedings. The good thing about that is it dramatically shortened the time when a priest was in a type of limbo where his faculties were suspended, he had no assignment, and his status was unresolved."

In earlier cases, said Father John Beal, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, Benedict had been criticized because some court documents made public after various trials and settlements have shown that as CDF prefect he told bishops seeking laicization of priests accused of misconduct that it couldn’t be done without a penal trial. "His name is on the letter, but he was just carrying out the policy," Father Beal said. Nonetheless, he continued, the law eventually did change under his watch.


Efficient Process

Because of Benedict’s work, the CDF today actively processes claims for dismissal from the clerical state in efficient fashion, according to Berkeley, Calif., attorney Jeffrey Lena, who has represented the Vatican in American lawsuits.

As Pope, Lena said, "Not only did [Benedict] act, but he started to set a tone for what would no longer be tolerable. … I think you had a pope who understood the problem and wanted to do something about it." Additionally, he said, Benedict created a well-trained, dedicated CDF staff who knew the law and were able to handle cases proficiently. "If you start to look at the files after [Cardinal] Levada is the man at CDF and [Benedict] is pope, you see that the pace picks up significantly."

Lena said those dissatisfied with the Church’s response to the scandal betray a lack of understanding of papal authority, the structure of the Church and canon law. In terms of doctrine, he said, the pope or the Holy See can have the final word, but the administration of dioceses and religious orders is in the hands of individual bishops and religious order heads and provincials. "The idea that this sort of vast organization we call the Catholic Church is simply run as a top-down organization is really not an accurate perception." 

Furthermore, Lena said, dismissal from the clerical state is not the same as a CEO firing an employee because canon law is a legal system and not just a set of policies. "It’s got procedural rules and due process that’s deeply respected. So you have this tug of war between the need for efficiency in dismissing people from the clerical state and at the same time maintaining the integrity of the legal process. Sometimes those may seem at odds. In the last 10 years, a much more efficient process and recognition of the need to dismiss certain priests from the clerical state have become apparent."

Given all this, Lena said, advances have been made. "These advances are in significant measure attributable to Benedict. He had to use his teaching authority both privately and publicly to turn the tide."


Concrete Results

One of Benedict’s most notable public acts in addressing clergy sexual abuse involved the case of Father Maciel shortly after he was elected Pope in 2005.

"He was the one who finally confronted the terrible, scandalous situation," Nussbaum said. "That was confronting a hugely powerful political force within the Church, where some others had looked away. He suspended Maciel from the priesthood, ordered him into seclusion and began a full investigation into the Legion of Christ."

Matthew Bunson, co-author of Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis, said an examination of the Holy Father’s record on the sexual-abuse issue reveals "a very clear trail of determination on his part to bring about reform and renewal."

"He realized it was not enough to close loopholes without a thorough spiritual reform and renewal in all corners of the Church that included seminary formation, parish life — the whole Church."

Bunson said the results of that reform are readily quantifiable. "If you look at diocesan audits of the U.S., new cases of abuse are in single digits every year now. We have millions of hours of safe programs, zero tolerance, protection in every form of diocesan and parish ministry and background checks. To a large degree, Benedict has presided over one of the great institutional transformations in modern history."

Added Nussbaum: "While everybody wants [the number of new cases] to be zero, it means the Catholic Church is the safest place on the planet of any major institution for working with children."

Catholic University’s Father Beal said he thinks Benedict deserves more credit than he gets for bringing the critical nature of the sexual-abuse problem to the attention of Church authorities.

"In historical retrospect, he will look a lot better than he may on Feb. 28, when we are all good at looking back and saying what should have been done," Father Beal said. "Hindsight is always 20-20, and it’s not always that easy to say when you’re in the midst of it what needs to be done. He used his teaching authority both privately and publicly to turn the tide."

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.

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