.- Previously unseen correspondence shows Pope Benedict XVI taking an active concern for âmore rapidâ prosecution of abusive priests, over two decades ago.
A letter from 1988, published for the first time on Dec. 2 in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, details the cardinal and future Pope's concern that Church officials were not able to act quickly enough to implement existing penalties in cases of priestly abuse.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger raised these concerns about how the Church was handling some priests' âgrave and scandalous conductâ in a letter to Cardinal Jose Lara, then president of a Pontifical commission on canon law, on Feb. 19, 1988. At the time, the future Pope Benedict XVI was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Cardinal Ratzinger noted in the letter that canon law allowed such priests to be punished through the immediate penalty of âreduction to the lay state.â But, he complained, the âcomplexity of the penal processâ required by canon law presented âconsiderable difficultyâ for local bishops attempting to revoke the priestly status of offenders.
Because of the difficulty involved in administering this punishment, Cardinal Ratzinger said that local bishops were choosing instead to seek a âdispensation from priestly obligationsâ for abusers. The cardinal noted that while this procedure also had the effect of laicizing priests, it was not an appropriate way to handle men who had disgraced the priesthood.
He pointed out the significant difference between the punishment of revoking a priest's faculties, and the virtual favor of dispensing such a person from priestly obligations. A dispensation from vows, he said, âby its very nature, involves a 'grace' in favor of the petitioner.â
âFor the good of the faithful,â he wrote, the penalty of revoking priests' status âought in some cases â¦ to take precedence over the request for dispensation from priestly obligations,â through a âmore rapid and simplified penal process.â He sought Cardinal Lara's advice as to how Church authorities might speed up the process while following canon law.
Cardinal Lara concurred with Cardinal Ratzinger's concerns over âgrave conduct,â but worried that swifter and stricter penalties might obstruct the âfundamental rightâ of accused priests to defend themselves against allegations not yet proven.
He appeared to agree with Cardinal Ratzinger's judgment that local bishops should not seek to revoke priests' status through a papal dispensation. Instead of seeking such dispensations from the priesthood, he said, local bishops should rely on their own âjudicial and coercive powerâ according to existing canon law.
Cardinal Ratzinger's complaint, however, had hinged on the observation that canon law made it difficult for bishops to exercise such power, prompting their choice of recourse to Rome.
Although reforms during the 2000s gave the Vatican's doctrinal congregation greater freedom to punish abusive priests, the process remains difficult for local bishops due to the canonical complexities that the future Pope noted in 1988. Canon lawyers have spent the last two years developing a draft version of new penal procedures, which a team of advisers will review next year.