A history of denial

Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger report on the history of denial and distraction that characterized the official response of the Curia to the instances of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic Clergy around the world.

The office led by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had actually been given authority over sexual abuse cases nearly 80 years earlier, in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm. But for the two decades he was in charge of that office, the future pope never asserted that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the church’s credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

Among the issues that got in the way:

The Vatican was more interested in stamping out Liberation Theology and other forms of theological dissent or innovation, and view the scandals thought that lens.

The heart of the office, though, was its doctrinal section. Cardinal Ratzinger, a German theologian appointed prefect of the congregation in 1981, aimed his renowned intellectual firepower at what he saw as “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church” — the liberation theology movement sweeping across Latin America.

As Father Gauthé was being prosecuted in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed, which the cardinal saw as a Marxist-inspired distortion of church doctrine. Later, he also reined in a Dutch theologian who thought lay people should be able to perform priestly functions, and an American who taught that Catholics could dissent from church teachings about abortion, birth control, divorce and homosexuality.

The Bishops did not know the proper channels for dealing with abusive priests and were often undercut in their authority from above. Even though the tools to deal with abusive priests existed since at least 1922 and scandals were appearing in the news since the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was no consistency in the application of those procedures.

…throughout the ’80s and ’90s, bishops who sought to penalize and dismiss abusive priests were daunted by a bewildering bureaucratic and canonical legal process, with contradicting laws and overlapping jurisdictions in Rome, according to church documents and interviews with bishops and canon lawyers.

The Vatican, and in particular then-Cardinal Ratzinger, viewed national bishop’s conferences with suspicion, preferring Bishops to report directly to Rome.

Cardinal Ratzinger also focused on reining in national bishops’ conferences, several of which, independent of Rome, had begun confronting the sexual abuse crisis and devising policies to address it in their countries. He declared that such conferences had “no theological basis” and “do not belong to the structure of the church.” Individual bishops, he reaffirmed, reigned supreme in their dioceses and reported only to the authority of the pope in Rome.

The exodus of clergy from the priesthood often meant that they would rather move an abusive priest that depose him, because so many others were leaving the priesthood.

That concern — that the irrevocable commitment to the priesthood was being undermined by the exodus of priests leaving to marry or because they were simply disenchanted — had already led Cardinal Ratzinger to block the dismissal of at least one priest convicted of molestation, documents show.

The Curia viewed this as a problem of the English-speaking Churches alone, and had little to no good information as to the nature of child sexual abuse, the dynamics of abusers and victims or the impact of the crimes on the victims, families, and communities.

Another Vatican participant even observed that many pedophile priests had Irish surnames, a remark that offended delegates from Ireland.

“Prejudices came out,” said Bishop Robinson of Australia. “There were some very silly things said at times….”

“…It wasn’t that there was bad will in Rome,” Bishop Walsh said. “They just didn’t have the firsthand experience that the dioceses were having around the world — experience with the manipulative, devious ways of the perpetrators. If the perpetrator said, ‘I didn’t do it,’ they would say, ‘He wouldn’t be telling a lie, he has to be telling the truth, and he’s innocent until proven guilty.’

American bishops did prevail in allowing their “zero-tolerance” enacted, and Bishops in Britain have set up similar procedures, but as the Irish and Belgian cases show, there is no uniformity across the whole RC Church, and individuals dioceses may vary in their application of policy.

the Vatican did not proactively apply those policies to other countries, and it is only now grappling with abuse problems elsewhere. Reports have surfaced of bishops in Chile, Brazil, India and Italy who quietly kept accused priests in ministry without informing local parishioners or prosecutors.

Benedict, now five years into his papacy, has yet to make clear if he intends to demand of bishops throughout the world — and of his own Curia — that all priests who committed abuse and bishops who abetted it must be punished.

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