July 1, 2010
The New York Times
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
and DAVID M. HALBFINGER
In its long struggle to grapple with sexual abuse, the Vatican
often cites as a major turning point the decision in 2001 to give the office led
by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger the authority to cut through a morass of
bureaucracy and handle abuse cases directly.
The decision, in an apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II, earned Cardinal
Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, a reputation as the Vatican insider who most
clearly recognized the threat the spreading sexual abuse scandals posed to the
Roman Catholic Church.
But church documents and interviews with canon lawyers and bishops cast that
2001 decision and the future pope’s track record in a new and less flattering
The Vatican took action only after bishops from English-speaking nations became
so concerned about resistance from top church officials that the Vatican
convened a secret meeting to hear their complaints — an extraordinary example of
prelates from across the globe collectively pressing their superiors for reform,
and one that had not previously been revealed.
And the policy that resulted from that meeting, in contrast to the way it has
been described by the Vatican, was not a sharp break with past practices. It was
mainly a belated reaffirmation of longstanding church procedures that at least
one bishop attending the meeting argued had been ignored for too long, according
to church documents and interviews.
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.
Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, an outspoken auxiliary bishop emeritus from Sydney,
Australia, who attended the secret meeting in 2000, said that despite numerous
warnings, top Vatican officials, including Benedict, took far longer to wake up
to the abuse problems than many local bishops did.
“Why did the Vatican end up so far behind the bishops out on the front line, who
with all their faults, did change — they did develop,” he said. “Why was the
Vatican so many years behind?”
Cardinal Ratzinger, of course, had not yet become pope, a divinely ordained
office not accustomed to direction from below. John Paul, his longtime superior,
often dismissed allegations of pedophilia by priests as an attack on the church
by its enemies. Supporters say that Cardinal Ratzinger would have preferred to
take steps earlier to stanch the damage in certain cases.
But the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of
nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction.
More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul, it was Cardinal
Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the 1990s to prevent the
scandal from metastasizing in country after country, growing to such proportions
that it now threatens to consume his own papacy.
As pope, Benedict has met with victims of sexual abuse three times. He belatedly
reopened an investigation into the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the
Legionaries of Christ, a powerful religious order — and a protégé of John Paul’s
— and ultimately removed him from ministry. He gave American bishops greater
leeway to take a tough line on abuse in the United States, and recently accepted
the resignations of several bishops elsewhere. And on June 11, at an event in
St. Peter’s Square meant to celebrate priests, he begged “forgiveness from God
and from the persons involved” and promised to do “everything possible” to
prevent future abuse.
But today the abuse crisis is still raging in the Catholic heartland of Europe:
civil investigators in Belgium last week took the rare step of raiding church
headquarters and the home of a former archbishop. The Vatican under Benedict is
still responding to abuse by priests at its own pace, and it is being besieged
by an outside world that wants it to move faster and more decisively.
Vatican officials, who declined to answer detailed questions related to
Benedict’s history, say that the church will announce another round of changes
to its canon laws, as it did in 2001, so that the church can improve its
response to the abuse problem.
But the suggestion that more reforms are ahead is a nod to the fact that there
is still widespread confusion among many bishops about how to handle allegations
of abuse, and that their approaches are remarkably uneven from country to
National bishops’ conferences in some countries have adopted their own norms and
standards. But several decades after sexual abuse by priests became a problem,
Benedict has not yet instituted a universal set of rules.
Scandal and Confusion
The sexual abuse scandal first caught much of the world’s attention in 2002,
with reports that the Boston archdiocese had been covering up for molesters for
years. But the alarm bells had already been sounding for nearly two decades in
many countries. In Lafayette, La., in 1984, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthé admitted to
molesting 37 youngsters. In 1989, a sensational case erupted at an orphanage in
the Canadian province of Newfoundland. By the mid-1990s, about 40 priests and
brothers in Australia faced abuse allegations. In 1994, the Irish government was
brought down when it botched the extradition of a notorious pedophile priest.
Bishops had a variety of disciplinary tools at their disposal — including the
power to remove accused priests from contact with children and to suspend them
from ministry altogether — that they could use without the Vatican’s direct
Some used this authority to sideline abusive priests, minimizing the damage
inflicted on their victims. Other bishops clearly made things worse, by
shuffling abusers from one assignment to the next, never telling parishioners or
reporting priests to the police.
But as court cases, financial settlements and media coverage mounted, many
prelates looked to the Vatican for leadership and clarity on how to prosecute
abusers under canon law and when to bring cases to the attention of the civil
authorities. In the worst cases, involving serial offenders who denied
culpability and resisted discipline, some bishops sought the Vatican’s guidance
on how to dismiss them from the priesthood.
For this, bishops needed the Vatican’s help. Dismissing a priest is not like
disbarring a lawyer or stripping a doctor of his medical license. In Catholic
theology, ordaining a priest creates an indelible mark; to return him to the lay
state required the approval of the pope.
Yet 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.
Besides Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, bishops
were sending off their files on abuse cases to the Congregations for the Clergy,
for Bishops, for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and for
the Evangelization of Peoples — plus the Vatican’s Secretariat of State; its
appeals court, the Apostolic Signatura; and the Pontifical Council for
“There was confusion everywhere,” said Archbishop Philip Edward Wilson of
A new Code of Canon Law issued in 1983 only muddied things further, among other
things by setting a five-year statute of limitations within which abuse cases
could be prosecuted.
During this period, the three dozen staff members working for Cardinal Ratzinger
at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were busy pursuing other
problems. These included examining supernatural phenomena, like apparitions of
the Virgin Mary, so that hoaxes did not “corrupt the faith,” according to the
Rev. Brian Mulcahy, a former member of the staff. Other sections weighed
requests by divorced Catholics to remarry and vetted the applications of former
priests who wanted to be reinstated.
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
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.
Different Focus for Cardinal
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.
Another hint of his priorities came at a synod in 1990, when a bishop from
Calgary gingerly mentioned the growing sexual abuse problem in Canada. When
Cardinal Ratzinger rose to speak, however, it was of a different crisis: the
diminishing image of the priesthood since the Second Vatican Council, and the
“huge drop” in the numbers of priests as many resigned.
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.
“Look at it from the perspective of priestly commitment,” said the Rev. Joseph
Fessio, a former student of Cardinal Ratzinger’s and founder of the conservative
publishing house Ignatius Press. “You want to get married? You’re still a
priest. You’re a sex offender? Well, you’re still a priest. Rome is looking at
it from the objective reality of the priesthood.”
After another abuse scandal in 1992 in Fall River, Mass., bishops in the United
States pressed the Vatican for an alternative to the slow and arcane canonical
justice system. Without a full canonical trial, clerics accused of abuse could
not be dismissed from the priesthood against their will (although a bishop could
impose some restrictions short of that). In 1993, John Paul said he had heard
the American bishops’ pleas and convened a joint commission of American and
Vatican canonists to propose improvements.
John Paul rejected its proposal to let bishops dismiss priests using
administrative procedures, without canonical trials. But he agreed to raise the
age of majority to 18 from 16 for child-molestation cases. More important, he
extended the statute of limitations to 10 years after the victim’s 18th
It is not known whether Cardinal Ratzinger spoke up in the internal
deliberations that led to the two changes, which applied only to the United
But those changes clearly did not go far enough. And as the crisis steadily
spread in other countries, bishops and church administrators from across the
English-speaking world began meeting to compare notes on how to respond to it.
After gathering on their own in 1996 and 1998, they demanded that the Curia, the
Vatican’s administration, meet with them in Rome in 2000.
Frustrations Boil Over
The visiting bishops had reached the boiling point. After flailing about for 20
years, with little guidance from Rome, as stories about pedophile priests
embroiled the church in lawsuits, shame and scandal, they had flown in to Rome
from Australia, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South
Africa, the United States and the West Indies.
Many came out of frustration: the Vatican had too often thwarted bishops’
attempts to oust pedophile priests in their jurisdictions. Yet they had high
hopes that they would make the case for reform. Nearly every major Vatican
office was represented in the gathering, held in the same Vatican hotel that was
built to house cardinals electing a new pope.
“The message we wanted to get across was: if individuals are to hide behind
church law and use that law to impede the ability of bishops to discipline
priests, then we have to have a new way of moving forward,” said Eamonn Walsh,
auxiliary bishop of Dublin, one of 17 bishops who attended from overseas. (He
was one of several Irish bishops who offered the pope their resignations last
year because of the abuse scandal, but his has not been accepted.)
Yet many at the meeting grew dismayed as, over four long days in early April
2000, they heard senior Vatican officials dismiss clergy sexual abuse as a
problem confined to the English-speaking world, and emphasize the need to
protect the rights of accused priests over ensuring the safety of children,
according to interviews with 10 church officials who attended the meeting.
Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, then the head of the Congregation for the
Clergy, set the tone, playing down sexual abuse as an unavoidable fact of life,
and complaining that lawyers and the media were unfairly focused on it,
according to a copy of his prepared remarks. What is more, he asked, is it not
contradictory for people to be so outraged by sexual abuse when society also
promotes sexual liberation?
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.”
Though disappointed, the visiting bishops were not entirely surprised.
“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.’ ”
An exception to the prevailing attitude, several participants recalled, was
Cardinal Ratzinger. He attended the sessions only intermittently and seldom
spoke up. But in his only extended remarks, he made clear that he saw things
differently from others in the Curia.
“The speech he gave was an analysis of the situation, the horrible nature of the
crime, and that it had to be responded to promptly,” recalled Archbishop Wilson
of Australia, who was at the meeting in 2000. “I felt, this guy gets it, he’s
understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move
Clarity Comes in a Letter
Even so, the meeting served as much to expose Cardinal Ratzinger’s inattention
to the problem as it did to showcase his new attitude.
Archbishop Wilson said in an interview that during the session he had to call
Vatican officials’ attention to long-ignored papal instructions, dating from
1922, and reissued in 1962, that gave Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office, sole responsibility
for deciding cases of priests accused of particularly heinous offenses:
solicitation of sex during confession, homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality.
Archbishop Wilson said he had stumbled across the old instructions as a canon
law student in the early 1990s. And he eventually learned that canonists were
deeply divided on whether the old instructions or the 1983 canon law — which
were at odds on major points — should hold sway.
If the old instructions had prevailed, then there would be no cause for
confusion among bishops across the globe: all sexual abuse cases would fall
under Cardinal Ratzinger’s jurisdiction.
(The Vatican has recently insisted that Cardinal Ratzinger’s office was
responsible only for cases related to priests who solicited sex in the
confessional, but the 1922 instructions plainly gave his office jurisdiction
over sexual abuse cases involving “youths of either sex” that did not involve
violating the sacrament of confession.)
Few people in the room had any idea what Archbishop Wilson was talking about,
other participants recalled. But Archbishop Wilson said he had discussed the old
papal instructions with Cardinal Ratzinger’s office in the late 1990s and had
been told that they indeed were the prevailing law in pedophilia cases.
Just over a year later, in May 2001, John Paul issued a confidential apostolic
letter instructing that all cases of sexual abuse by priests were thenceforth to
be handled by Cardinal Ratzinger’s office. The letter was called “Sacramentorum
Sanctitatis Tutela,” Latin for “Safeguarding the Sanctity of the Sacraments.”
In an accompanying cover letter, Cardinal Ratzinger, who is said to have been
heavily involved in drafting the main document, wrote that the 1922 and 1962
instructions that gave his office authority over sexual abuse by priests cases
were “in force until now.”
The upshot of that phrase, experts say, is that Catholic bishops around the
world, who had been so confused for so long about what to do about molestation
cases, could and should have simply directed them to the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith all along.
Bishops and canon law experts said in interviews that they could only speculate
as to why the future pope had not made this clear many years earlier.
“It makes no sense to me that they were sitting on this document,” said the Rev.
John P. Beal, a canon law professor at the Catholic University of America. “Why
didn’t they just say, ‘Here are the norms. If you need a copy we’ll send them to
Nicholas P. Cafardi, a Catholic expert in canon law who is dean emeritus and
professor of law at Duquesne University School of Law, said, “When it came to
handling child sexual abuse by priests, our legal system fell apart.”
There was additional confusion over the statute of limitations for sexual abuse
cases — or whether there even was one, given the Vatican’s reaffirmation of the
1922 and 1962 papal instructions. Many bishops had believed that they could not
prosecute cases against priests because they exceeded the five-year statute of
limitations enacted in 1983, effectively shielding many molesters since victims
of child abuse rarely came forward until they were well into adulthood.
Mr. Cafardi, who is also the author of “Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops’
Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children,” argued that another effect of the
2001 apostolic letter was to impose a 10-year statute of limitations on
pedophilia cases where, under a careful reading of canon law, none had
“When you think how much pain could’ve been prevented, if we only had a clear
understanding of our own law,” he said. “It really is a terrible irony. This did
not have to happen.”
Though the apostolic letter was praised for bringing clarity to the subject, it
also reaffirmed a requirement that such cases be handled with the utmost
confidentiality, under the “pontifical secret” — drawing criticism from many who
argued that the church remained unwilling to report abusers to civil law
Reforms, but Limited Reach
After the new procedures were adopted, Cardinal Ratzinger’s office became more
responsive to requests to discipline priests, said bishops who sought help from
his office. But when the sexual abuse scandal erupted again, in Boston in 2002,
it immediately became clear to American bishops that the new procedures were
Meeting in Dallas in the summer of 2002, the American bishops adopted a stronger
set of canonical norms requiring bishops to report all criminal allegations to
the secular authorities, and to permanently remove from ministry priests facing
even one credible accusation of abuse. They also sought from the Vatican a
streamlined way to discipline priests that would not require a drawn-out
The Vatican initially rejected the American bishops’ proposed norms. A committee
of American bishops and Vatican officials, including Cardinal Ratzinger’s
deputy, watered down the American mandatory-reporting requirement to say only
that bishops must comply with civil laws on reporting crimes, which vary widely
from place to place.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reserved for itself the power to
dismiss a man from the priesthood without a full canonical trial — the kind of
administrative remedy that American bishops had long been begging the Vatican to
delegate to them.
Even so, the American bishops got most of what they asked for, and Cardinal
Ratzinger was their advocate, said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, then the
president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Americans were allowed to keep their zero-tolerance provision for abusive
priests, making the rules for the church in the United States far more stringent
than in most of the rest of the world. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith also said it would waive the statute of limitations on a case-by-case
basis if bishops asked.
Archbishop Gregory said he made 13 trips to Rome in three years, almost always
meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger.
“He was extraordinarily supportive of what we were doing,” Archbishop Gregory
said in an interview.
Other reforms enacted by American bishops included requiring background checks
for church personnel working with children, improved screening of seminarians,
training in recognizing abuse, annual compliance audits in each diocese and lay
review boards to advise bishops on how to deal with abuse cases.
Those measures seem to be having an impact. Last year, according to the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 513 people made allegations of sexual
abuse against 346 priests or other church officials, roughly a third fewer cases
than in 2008.
Yet 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.
As the crisis has mushroomed internationally this year, some cardinals in the
Vatican have continued to blame the news media and label the criticism
anti-Catholic persecution. Benedict himself has veered from defensiveness to
contrition, saying in March that the faithful should not be intimidated by “the
petty gossip of dominant opinion” — and then in May telling reporters that “the
greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside, but
is born from the sin in the church.”
The Vatican, moreover, has never made it mandatory for bishops around the world
to report molesters to the civil authorities, or to alert parishes and
communities where the abusive priests worked — information that often propels
more victims to step forward. (Vatican officials caution that a reporting
requirement could be dangerous in dictatorships and countries where the church
is already subject to persecution.)
It was only in April that the Vatican posted “guidelines” on its Web site saying
that church officials should comply with civil laws on reporting abuse. But
those are recommendations, not requirements.
Today, a debate is roiling the Vatican, pitting those who see the American
zero-tolerance norms as problematic because they lack due process for accused
priests, against those who want to change canon law to make it easier to
penalize and dismiss priests.
Where Benedict lies on this spectrum, even after nearly three decades of
handling abuse cases, is still an open question.