(This is more or less what I plan to put in the church bulletin this coming weekend. I may change it based on feedback I receive, here or elsewhere)
No doubt you’ve read stories criticizing Pope Benedict, saying he was negligent or blocked action regarding abusive priests.
Of course this is delicate, because too many people suffered terribly at the hands of a few priests who did horrible things. Too many, especially bishops, were passive, or protected the offenders. These are valid criticisms of the Church. Still there is a question of fairness. No one wants to lump the innocent with the guilty.
So are these claims about the pope “fair and balanced”?
The Vatican is fairly faulted for being slow-moving, including in responding to the media frenzy. However, many are expecting the Vatican to do what local bishops are supposed to do, such as removing an offending priest from active ministry.
This whole mess exploded in this country around 2002, and we’ve taken steps to deal with it. Now much of the world is catching up. Europe is going through what we went through in 2002. And so in the media, it all comes back up as if it’s new.
It may yet be the case that Pope Benedict deserves criticism, what I’ve learned so far leads me more to fault the media for being sloppy and looking for the big “score.” For example, the New York Times relied on an online translation program to convert a document from Latin* to English, without having anyone check it for accuracy!
One story accused Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), as Archbishop of Munich, of putting an abusive priest back into service. It is true the priest was returned to service; but it was not Ratzinger’s decision. While in the U.S., a bishop would make that call, in Europe another official, the vicar general, makes that decision. That was all too common in the 1980s, but it doesn’t happen now, thankfully.
You heard about a case from Milwaukee, where a priest was facing a church trial to be “laicized”; and you heard about something similar from California. The claim is made that then-Cardinal Ratzinger slowed things down.
To unravel this, I have to clarify some terms many use interchangeably.
1. We refer to a cleric being “removed from ministry.” The local bishop does this—not the pope; and he can do it immediately. It can be temporary, while something is investigated, or it can be permanent. Not taking this step is probably the single-biggest harm many bishops caused in this whole mess.
2. We also refer to “laicizing” a priest. Remember, we believe that the sacrament of holy orders imparts an indelible change—“once a priest, always a priest.” But “laicizing” means he no longer has the obligations of a priest and can no longer function as a priest.
3. Often, a priest himself will ask to be “laicized” for various reasons; he feels he can no longer carry out his ministry, he wishes to marry, has had a crisis of faith, etc. The pope is not obliged to grant the request, and usually does not.
4. Then, there are cases of “involuntary” laicization, what the media calls “defrocking.” When a priest has committed grave offenses, his bishop will seek this action. The priest has the right to contest it, so there is a long process, in a “church court,” just like a secular court of law. Rome has the final say.
The problem is, the media are mixing all these together. Many have faulted Rome for taking time on laicization, failing to note that this doesn’t prevent a bishop from removing a priest from all active ministry. They are independent.
Yes, it is true that laicization takes time, and many of the stories highlight how long it took in the ’80s and ’90s. What they don’t tell you is that it has been streamlined since 2001. And who spearheaded this change? Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.
An AP story really muffs this. A California priest wrote to Rome asking for voluntary dismissal. Ratzinger wrote back, saying slow down “for the good of the church.” Turns out, the same priest was also an abuser (which he obviously didn’t say in his own letter to Ratzinger); and in time, the bishop sought to have him laicized. But the AP doesn’t make clear just what request the letter they’ve quoted was responding to.
A New York Times story about a priest from Milwaukee claimed Ratzinger stopped a church trial of a dying priest. But the judge in the case—who said the Times never even talked to him—tells a different story: yes, Ratzinger was asked to stop the trial, because the priest was ill. But before Ratzinger even responded, the priest died.
Now, it may yet be that we’ll learn something deserving criticism. But the whole story should be told. If you go online to http://www.vatican.va/resources/index_en.htm, you can read about how Rome deals with these things. You can also read the tough letter Pope Benedict addressed to the Irish Church, in light of terrible events there.
Also, a lot of people see this through the lens of some mistaken assumptions.
Many assume the Vatican is a massive bureaucracy. Not so. Many assume the pope can do whatever he wants, such as firing a bishop. In theory, yes; but in practice, no. Many claim that if only the priesthood were open to women, or priests were married, this would all be different; yet we know these crimes happen in other religious settings, in schools, sports teams and elsewhere, where celibacy and Catholic theology have nothing to do with it.
I thought these were points you would like to consider as you read these things. My conclusion is the pope, and our Church, are being treated unfairly—Father Martin.
* Correction: it was a translation from Italian to English. See link in comments.
Update, April 19, AD 2010: This article in the UK Catholic Herald is very good. Biretta-tip to Rich Leonardi at Ten Reasons