Letter shows Pope Benedict pushed faster penalties for abuse in 1980s

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


Previously unseen correspondence shows Pope Benedict XVI taking an active concern for “more rapid” 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' “grave and scandalous conduct” 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 “reduction to the lay state.” But, he complained, the “complexity of the penal process” required by canon law presented “considerable difficulty” 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 “dispensation from priestly obligations” 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, “by its very nature, involves a 'grace' in favor of the petitioner.”

“For the good of the faithful,” he wrote, the penalty of revoking priests' status “ought in some cases … to take precedence over the request for dispensation from priestly obligations,” through a “more rapid and simplified penal process.” 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 “grave conduct,” but worried that swifter and stricter penalties might obstruct the “fundamental right” 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 “judicial and coercive power” 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.

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