New Evidence: Cardinal Ratzinger Sought Swift Action Against Abusive Priests in 1988

This pushes back the timeline of the future Pope's outspoken advocacy for more effective procedures to remove priest-offenders.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is shown in this 1993 file photo.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is shown in this 1993 file photo. (photo: Reuters)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A newly disclosed letter reveals that as early as 1988, the future Pope Benedict XVI pressed for swifter and more streamlined procedures to punish priests guilty of “grave and scandalous conduct.”

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.

The letter was cited in a lengthy article published Dec. 1 by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. The article highlighted what it described as a “crucial role” and “decisive action” by Cardinal Ratzinger in the 20-year process of strengthening sanctions against errant priests.

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.

He wrote that such penalties “in the judgment of this dicastery, ought in some cases, for the good of the faithful, to take precedence over the request for dispensation from priestly obligations, which, by its nature, involves a ‘grace’ in favor of the petitioner.”

“Yet in view of the complexity of the penal process required by the code (of canon law) in these circumstances, some ordinaries are likely to experience considerable difficulty in implementing such a penal process,” Cardinal Ratzinger said.

“I would be grateful to your eminence, therefore, if you were to communicate your valued opinion regarding the possibility of making provision, in specific cases, for a more rapid and simplified penal process,” he said.

The response from Cardinal Castillo Lara came less than a month later. It was sympathetic with Cardinal Ratzinger’s concerns but recommended reminding bishops to exercise their authority rather than streamlining penal procedures.

“To seek to simplify the judicial procedure further so as to impose or declare sanctions as grave as dismissal from the clerical state ... does not seem at all appropriate,” Cardinal Castillo Lara wrote. He likewise rejected changes that would allow an “extra-judicial administrative decree in these cases.”

Cardinal Castillo Lara said such modifications would “endanger the fundamental right of defense” and would favor the “deplorable tendency” toward “so-called ‘pastoral’ governance” that obscures the due exercise of authority.

Instead, he said, bishops should be reminded “not to omit their judicial and coercive power” in such cases, “instead of forwarding petitions for dispensation to the Holy See.”

In 2001, the doctrinal congregation was given exclusive jurisdiction over a number of “most grave crimes,” including the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest. In 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger obtained from Pope John Paul II new faculties to deal with sex abuse offenders, including those making it easier to dismiss them from the priesthood.

The Vatican newspaper article was written by Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. He said Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter came to light during the council’s preparation of a revision of the penal section of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

President Donald Trump during his speech at a "Thank You" Tour rally held at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa.

President Trump: ‘Faith in God’ Helps Unite Nation

In an apparent reference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and months of demonstrations and civil unrest across several U.S. cities over racial justice issues, Trump said that faith was an important support for civil and national unity.

President Donald Trump during his speech at a "Thank You" Tour rally held at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa.

President Trump: ‘Faith in God’ Helps Unite Nation

In an apparent reference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and months of demonstrations and civil unrest across several U.S. cities over racial justice issues, Trump said that faith was an important support for civil and national unity.