Washington D.C., Apr 11, 2019 / 15:45 pm
After the April 11 publication of a new essay by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, commentators are mostly discussing their perception of the politics surrounding the release, or Benedict’s assessment of the sexual revolution and its relationship to the crisis.
But lost in that discussion is the immediate practical application of the document, which articulates a theology of law that seems to support the 'zero tolerance’ approach to addressing sexual abusers in the Church, which Pope Francis has long endorsed, even while he has not yet arrived at a practical way of delivering it.
At the heart of his new argument, the former pontiff insists that the purpose of punishing the perpetrators of sexual abuse is the salvation of souls, which is the highest law of the Church.
Recalling that, in the 1980s, the crisis of abuse began to reach Rome after decades of building at the diocesan level, Benedict’s essay explained that there was in Rome a double failure of law and theology, which left both victims of abuse and the faith itself unprotected.
While the previous Code of Canon Law contained a long list of specific crimes a cleric could commit - including a litany of sexual delicts - “the deliberately loosely constructed criminal law of the new Code” of 1983 offered a much pared down set of penal norms, Benedict argued.
He added that in accord with a prevailing ecclesiology at the time there also emerged among many canonists and bishops a false dichotomy between justice and mercy, in which mercy was seen to pre-empt and exclude the former, rather than following and tempering it.
Benedict highlighted the emergence of a kind of legal “guarantorism,” in which the rights of the accused seemed to be afforded the central concern of the canonical process, often at the expense of victims, restorative justice, and the public good.
Temporary suspensions and stints in therapy for abusive clerics were treated as adequate punishment, and local bishops were left with abusive priests they were expected to rehabilitate.
Under Pope St. John Paul II, reforms to the process began, starting with Rome’s decision to raise the canonical age of majority for these cases to 18, and to extend the canonical statute of limitations. The reforms under Pope St. John Paul II culminated in 2001, when Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela established new legal norms for the handling of “major crimes” against faith and morals in canon law.