As cardinal, Pope Benedict sought swift action against abusive priests

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • December 9, 2010
Pope Benedict XVIVATICAN CITY - A newly disclosed letter reveals that as early as 1988, the future Pope Benedict XVI pressed for swifter and more streamlined procedures to punish priests guilty of “grave and scandalous conduct.”

The letter, written by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when he was head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, expressed concern that the normal process for dealing with such priests — which typically involved a request for dispensation from priestly obligations — took too long and was seen more as a favour than a punishment. Eventually, with Ratzinger’s involvement, the penal procedures were simplified and sanctions were strengthened. But in 1988, the cardinal’s suggestion of a “more rapid and simplified penal process” was rebuffed by the Vatican’s canon law experts.


The letter was cited in a lengthy article published Dec. 1 by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. The article highlighted what it described as a “crucial role” and “decisive action” by the future Pope in the 20-year process of strengthening sanctions against errant priests.

The letter, dated Feb. 19, 1988, was addressed to the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, who at that time was Venezuelan Cardinal Jose Rosalio Castillo Lara. The doctrinal congregation was in charge of examining petitions for dispensation from priestly obligations, some of which involved priests guilty of grave crimes, although sexual abuse was not specifically mentioned. Ratzinger’s concern was that not enough attention was being given to penalties foreseen by Church law for priest-offenders, including “reduction to the lay state,” because the penal process was too cumbersome.

He wrote that such penalties “in the judgment of this dicastery, ought in some cases, for the good of the faithful, to take precedence over the request for dispensation from priestly obligations, which, by its nature, involves a ‘grace’ in favour of the petitioner.”

The response from Castillo Lara came less than a month later. It was sympathetic with Ratzinger’s concerns but recommended reminding bishops to exercise their authority rather than streamlining penal procedures. He rejected changes that would allow an “extra-judicial administrative decree in these cases.” Castillo Lara said such modifications would “endanger the fundamental right of defense” and would favour the “deplorable tendency” toward “so-called ‘pastoral’ governance” that obscures the due exercise of authority.

Instead, he said, bishops should be reminded “not to omit their judicial and coercive power” in such cases, “instead of forwarding petitions for dispensation to the Holy See.”

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