Documents prove Pope Benedict is longtime reformer on clergy sex abuse

Did you miss the news about some recently unearthed evidence that Pope Benedict XVI, stretching back more than two decades, well before he was pope, was a leading voice at the Vatican for better handling of clerical sex abuse cases? 

I wouldn’t be surprised if you did miss it. Seems like that news got about the same level of play as a simultaneous rehash of an old report about the pope’s supposed negligent handling of a clerical sex abuser while he was archbishop of Munich. (Here’s one bellwether: The New York Times gave it fewer than 400 words on Page A14.) 

But this is big news, especially for anyone who had any doubts that the pope really “gets it.” He may have had a steep learning curve, but if so it was not as recent or dramatic as it unfortunately has been for many other members of the hierarchy. 

According to correspondence from 1988 published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the pope — then a cardinal who headed the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation — pressed the Vatican office in charge of Church law for a “more rapid and simplified penal process” of priests accused of “grave and scandalous conduct” like child sex abuse. 

He said the Church’s legal approach was too complex and lengthy, and that “some [local bishops] are likely to experience considerable difficulty in implementing such a penal process.”  

Additionally, he said it wasn’t right that some priest-abusers were more likely to request and receive a dispensation from their priestly obligations — which seemed like a “grace in favor” of them — than be meted the punishment of a reduction to the lay state. 

Back then, the cardinal he wrote to replied sympathetically but raised (entirely valid) concerns about the due process rights of accused priests, and the importance of impressing upon local bishops their responsibility to adjudicate such cases. 

But, as we know 22 years later, Pope Benedict’s wishes have been fulfilled, partly during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and partly during his own. In fact, not too long after that letter exchange, Pope John Paul reorganized the Vatican bureaucracy, giving then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s office jurisdiction not only over offences against the faith or in the celebration of the sacraments, but also with regard to “more serious offenses against morals” like the sexual abuse of minors by priests. 

The correspondence, with commentary by the No. 2 official at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, can be found on the Vatican’s website at 

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A special thanks to everyone who sent in submissions for this year’s Christmas Memories (See In Focus, Pages 9-12). My team and I are sorry we don’t have space to print more of them. Enjoy this year’s picks! 

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