New York Times
April 23, 2005
VATICAN CITY, April 23 - For the past four years, the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI had more responsibility than any other cardinal for deciding whether and how to discipline Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse.
On Friday mornings, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sat in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith poring over dossiers detailing allegations of abuse sent in by bishops from around the world, according to two top officials in his office. He found the cases so disturbing that he called the work "our Friday penance."
The scandal changed the church in the United States, and it may have changed the new pope as well.
When the scandal was snowballing in 2002, Cardinal Ratzinger was among several Vatican officials who appeared to minimize the problem.
"In the United States, there is constant news on this topic, but less than 1 percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type," he said in November 2002 during a visit to Spain. "Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated - that there is a desire to discredit the church."
But as the cases began to flood into his office, he learned that the problem was both broader and deeper, according to co-workers and American church officials.
"If there's any pope who knows what he's talking about when we're talking about this, it is Cardinal Ratzinger," said Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, promoter of justice at the Congregation. "We would have to go through the cases, and reading through the hurt this misconduct creates was obviously a great source of spiritual and moral suffering."
Last December, the Congregation reopened the high-profile case of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the elderly founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
Father Maciel is accused of abusing eight men years ago when they were young students in the Legion, and some had tried for years to have the Congregation hear the case.
It is impossible to assess Cardinal Ratzinger's record in disciplining the priests accused over the years. The hearings were secret, and under longstanding rules, the Congregation and its staff do not release any information about specific cases, the number of cases considered, or how the cases have been handled.
If a priest has been defrocked or disciplined in any other way, the information becomes public only if a bishop decides to release it.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, criticized Cardinal Ratzinger for hurting many victims with his comments in 2002.
But Mr. Clohessy also praised him for reopening the Maciel case. "That was, in fact, action, not words, so we want to give him credit where credit is due," Mr. Clohessy said.
A change in church rules in 2001, before the abuse scandal exploded in the United States, redirected cases to the Congregation and made Cardinal Ratzinger effectively the chief judge, said the Rev. Joseph Augustine Di Noia, under secretary of the Congregation, speaking recently at a conference at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Before that, the cases were largely handled by the Roman Rota, a panel of canon lawyers at the Vatican that hears many other types of cases.
"We've become the experts," said Father Di Noia. "We know more about this now practically than anybody in the world, because we study it case by case."
The process is slow, and some abuse victims complain that after being interviewed by a church investigator and having their cases forwarded to the Congregation, they never heard another word.
But other victims said they were satisfied when they learned through their local dioceses that the priest who abused them had been defrocked, or laicized. Only the pope can laicize a priest, church officials said. A priest can also be disciplined in other ways, like being ordered to spend the rest of his life in prayer and penance.
Throughout the American abuse scandal, many victims and their supporters came to view the Vatican as orchestrating a churchwide cover-up.
The accusations peaked after Vatican officials ordered changes to the charter that the American bishops had passed in 2002 instructing bishops to remove any clergy who had ever abused a youngster.
But the more accurate picture may have been that Cardinal Ratzinger and other Vatican officials were simply woefully out of touch, said Anne M. Burke, an appeals court judge in Illinois.
She and a panel of prominent Catholic laypeople were appointed by the American bishops to serve on a national review board to examine the causes of the sexual abuse and come up with recommendations, and she served as acting chairwoman of the board.
The board tried to contact Vatican officials through the papal nuncio, the Vatican's representative in Washington, but he never responded, she said.
So Judge Burke searched the Web, found the fax numbers of 10 relevant Vatican offices and sent them each a strongly worded request for a meeting. She heard back from seven offices, and in December 2003, she and two other board members traveled to the Vatican for a series of meetings. When they returned to the United States, she found a fax from Cardinal Ratzinger, inviting them back to Rome to meet with him.
On Jan. 25 last year, she and two other review board members - the Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett and the publishing executive William R. Burleigh - returned to the Vatican.
The three Americans told Cardinal Ratzinger and five staff members how extensive the scandal had become in the United States, and shared information that she says the cardinal had never heard from American bishops, though she refused to specify what it was.
They talked about ways to prevent further abuse, including having the bishops keep one another accountable, better screening of candidates for the priesthood and improving the curriculum in Catholic seminaries.
One month later in Washington, the review board released a ground-breaking study it had commissioned by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who found that more than 4,000 priests in a 52-year period were accused of abusing about 10,000 youngsters -about 4 percent of all priests. One of the first people to receive a copy was Cardinal Ratzinger, she said.
"I do have a great hope," said Judge Burke. "He is, No. 1, a listener. Now we have a pope who has direct information from three ordinary people about the gravity of the sexual abuse crisis. He'll always retain that information." She said she was also optimistic because he was open to involvement by Catholic laity.
The new pope has not repudiated the remarks he made in 2002 in Spain at a Catholic university there, but he has revised his assessment, Monsignor Scicluna said. "We have learned to put things in context," he said. "I think we are more careful with the numbers now."
Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger had already indicated his prescription for addressing sexual abuse in the church: more careful screening of candidates to the priesthood and better "formation," especially when it comes to preparing priests for celibate lives.
After hearing so many cases, Monsignor Scicluna said, "you always link this tragedy to lack of clear doctrine."