In recent weeks the press has been full of stories about Pope Benedict’s involvement in the laicization, or “defrocking,” of a California priest 25 years ago. According to critics, then-Cardinal Ratzinger tried to stall the process when news of this priest’s abuse of children was brought to his attention.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, the 1985 letter Ratzinger issued that is the supposed “smoking gun” in this controversy came in response to a request by the offending priest for a dispensation from his vow of celibacy. At that time, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Ratzinger led, had no authority to dismiss men from the priesthood as a penalty for sex abuse.
As the Catholic News Service reports, Ratzinger’s letter “acknowledged the ‘grave’ reasons involved in the case, urged the local bishop to follow the priest closely and advised further careful consideration of the situation.” The priest was laicized two years later, pursuant to the policies and procedures of the time.
Moreover, he had already been convicted in a civil trial of abusing children, and the Diocese of Oakland, which possessed jurisdiction over the matter, had previously suspended his ministry. Jeffrey Lena, a California lawyer for the Vatican, explains, “During the entire course of the proceeding, the priest remained under the control, authority and care of the local bishop who was responsible to make sure he did no harm, as canon law provides. The abuse case wasn’t transferred to the Vatican at all.”
In 2001, the CDF was given expanded responsibilities over incidents of priestly abuse, and Cardinal Ratzinger, still its head, ushered in reforms that streamlined the handling of these cases.
By virtually all accounts, his reforms have been successful and, coupled with the efforts of local bishops, have led to a sharp decrease in incidents of abuse. In 2009, only six credible accusations were reported in the United States for a church that counts more than 65 million members. (By way of comparison, a 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 10 percent of U.S. public school students reported having been targeted with sexual attention by school employees.)
While any case of abuse is a case too many, the church’s record of safety is a remarkable achievement for such a large organization; we have Pope Benedict to thank for that.
[This article originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer and is used by permission.