People in the U.S. and around the world--religious or not--are shocked by widespread clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Clergy are ordained by their churches to serve God's people. Their position as leaders, their weekly duties to preach, teach, and counsel, naturally call for trust by their congregations. To use their sacred offices and trust for criminal sexual acts harms children, their families, congregations, and stains the reputations of clergy and the Church.
People are asking now whether or not the current Pope, Benedict XVI, when he was a bishop, archbishop, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had any role in ignoring, enabling, protecting, or any form of negligence or malfeasance, regarding priests harming children. Based on emerging evidence, some are calling openly for his resignation as an appropriate ethical response to what is being learned.
This essay looks at one document available to us from the Pope's career as Prefect, analyzes part of it, and draws some appropriate conclusions. Then, bypassing issues of canon law, we return to consider Jesus of Nazareth--the founder of the Christian religion--and his commandments on church discipline, and related themes on personal accountability.
Since the current news is on professional ethics, harm, and personality and professional accountability, these remarks are offered to the public.
Analysis of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's 2001 Letter
"Regarding More Serious Offenses"
Before he chose the name Benedict XVI, the current Pope was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he served as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981-2005. In 1962, the Congregation issued an official policy, Crimen Solicitatis, which required secrecy for cases of alleged sexual abuse. After Cardinal Ratzinger became Prefect, on 18 May 2001, he issued a policy, "Regarding More Serious Offenses", which instructed bishops and archbishops on various crimes, including sex with minors under the age of 18.
Ratzinger instructed that the offenses covered, including sexual offenses with minors, were "reserved to the apostolic tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." Nevertheless, he indicated that the Congregation ceded authority for how offenses were to be investigated and decided to local authorities. We quote:
As often as an ordinary or hierarch has at least probable knowledge of a reserved delict, after he has carried out the preliminary investigation he is to indicate it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which unless it calls the case to itself because of special circumstances of things, after transmitting appropriate norms, orders the ordinary or hierarch to proceed ahead through his own tribunal. The right of appealing against a sentence of the first instance, whether on the part of the party or the party's legal representative, or on the part of the promoter of justice, solely remains valid only to the supreme tribunal of this congregation.Ratzinger was the highest-ranking Roman Catholic authority on faith and morals at this time, subordinate only to Pope John Paul II himself. We note the following conclusions from this letter issued in 2001.
It must be noted that the criminal action on delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is extinguished by a prescription of 10 years. The prescription runs according to the universal and common law; however, in the delict perpetrated with a minor by a cleric, the prescription begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age.
- Sexual crimes against minors mentioned for separate attention in one line, after more extensive discussions against eucharistic celebration and the sacrament of penance.
- Local authorities were not to to report to the Congregation until and unless due to "special circumstances of things." The determination of what constituted "special circumstances," and thus requiring cases to be forwarded, was left to local authorities.
- Noteworthy was the difference in "extinguishment" of the statute of limitations between the two classes of criminal offenses. (a) For doctrinal offenses against eucharistic celebration and penance, ten years were reserved. (b) For moral offenses against minors, the "clock" did not start until ten years after minors reached their 18th birthdays. This meant, for example, if a priest was investigated and found guilty of a sexual crime against a six year old, the statute of limitations would run out 22 years later, after the event.
- The inclusion of crimes against minors indicates Ratzinger knew these criminal acts were sufficiently widespread to warrant universal instruction.
- He devoted more explicit definition and instruction to doctrinal offenses, and placed them first to be treated for consideration. The amount of space and order suggest these had greater priority for the Congregation.
- Sexual crimes against minors occurred in last place, and in one sentence. Placement and notation only, following fuller attention to doctrinal offenses, has an effect of lesser emphasis.
- Though crimes against minors involved harm to parishioner victims and their families, with greater civil and social adverse effects, local authorities were given freedom to investigate and rule on whether these were "special circumstances" requiring attention by Rome. The obvious issue of self-interest, in handling such grievous and grave matters, was not addressed.
- By extending the statute of limitations for sex crimes to ten years after the minor reached the age of 18 has implications of its own.
- The statutory "clock" for sexual offenses with minors assured convicted priests were allowed to continue to serve for many years, with immunity and without fear for many years.
- The extension of the statutory clock could have no doctrinal or theological motive. In fact, the additional years of protection for convicted priests suggests Ratzinger did not view such moral crimes as requiring immediate and complete cessation of priestly duties.
- Local authorities understood the Congregation was adding both delay and more protection for whatever they decided for grave moral offenses of sexual crimes by the extension.
- The extension by nature (a) extended the period of unabated, unresolved suffering for victims and their families; (b) denied them immediate access to the courts if they opposed whatever actions local authorities took on their cases; and, (c) increased the possibility victims and families might "go away" during the statutory period.
- The statute of limitations enabled convicted priests additional time, under the extended statutes, to minister without fear of civil litigation.
Jesus is the center of the Christian faith, and the confessed Lord of the Church. The Pope is the supreme head of the Church serving in Christ's stead, serving in an unbroken line of leaders descended directly from Jesus' authority according to the doctrine of apostolic succession. While over two thousand years have intervened, and while canon law has grown during the intervening centuries, it is fair to say Jesus' commandments on any matter are of higher authority than any other, later source.
It so happens Jesus prescribed a process for church discipline in the Gospel of Matthew. In today's discussions and debates on sexual crimes against minors, his commandments are not considered. For example, recent news suggests Vatican officials may have stated the Pope is immune from investigation or prosecution as a head of state; that is, Vatican City. This is a legal argument, not a theological argument. Since Jesus did command a process for believers sinned against by others, it seems entirely reasonable to consider what he stated. We quote his teaching.
If your brother commits a sin against you, go and show him his fault, but privately, just between the two of you. If he does not listen, take one or two others with you so that 'every accusation can be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to hear them, tell the congregation; and, if he refuses to listen even to the congregation, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax-collector.Jesus' teaching asserts his viewpoint as to the rights and responsibilities believers have for adjudicating their grievances with each other. There are implicit also certain principles for the disciplinary process he required. These are noted.
- Offended members have a sanctioned and commanded duty to bring their perceived or real harms and grievances to those who they allege as having harmed them.
- The purpose of that duty is to affirm mutual responsibility of the parties to speak, to listen, and to seek justice and restored relationships.
- Privacy between the parties prevents public knowledge of the first step of the process.
- Refusal of the accused party to accept responsibility is understood as a possibility, requiring more evidence by witnesses to confirm allegations.
- The second step of bring additional witnesses is semi-public, since third parties are required to confirm allegations.
- Indirect, non-direct evidence, by witnesses who also endured similar harms, is not forbidden in the second step for discipline.
- Additional witnesses with bona fide testimony are intended to bring added pressure for admission, justice, and reconciliation
- Refusal of the accused party to accept responsibility, in the face of bona fide testimony, requires a third step, public accusation within the entire religious community.
- Recitation of the two earlier attempts at resolution, justice, and restoration, may be presumed as part of the third step.
- The entire Christian assembly itself--not ecclesiastical leaders with delegated authority--Jesus required as entrusted with full authority to hear evidence and render judgment.
- Refusal of the accused party to accept responsibility, if the assembly concurs with the aggrieved parties and the concurrent evidence of witnesses deemed credible, is basis for conviction and judgment.
- The only judgment prescribed for guilty parties is to be treated as unbelievers; that is, their resistance against compelling evidence shows their resistance to repentance, and ceding of their rights to be considered or treated as believers.
Why Are Jesus' Teachings on Church Discipline Ignored?
The Roman Catholic Church has a long-established principle that "tradition interprets scripture." This principle allows "development" and, in the matter under consideration here, replacement of one of Jesus' clear teachings by processes prescribed by canon law and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Additional Roman Catholic teaching on "sacrament of orders," or ordination, grants a special divine "chrism" to clergy, special status, additional authority over other believers, and special treatment under canon law. Whatever egalitarianism was in Jesus' original teaching has been displaced by doctrine, policies, and practices, unknown and not approved by him. However, the Church holds that the principle, "tradition interprets tradition," enables today's leaders and all congregants to trust that current practices are valid.
Therefore, current Roman Catholic canon law, policies, and practices, regarding church discipline, have set aside Jesus' commandment on (a) how to resolve alleged harms between believers; (b) how evidence may be brought and substantiated; (c) how to increase pressure for admission, confession, repentance, justice, and resolution; and, (d) how the Christian assembly was granted authority to hear and rule on cases, as well as to impose judgment and sanctions on persons convicted of their refusal to accept responsibility, make restitution, and establish reconciliation.
Jesus of Nazareth: Other Teachings Relevant to Appropriate Papal Response
Jesus also taught more on matters relevant to the subject of victims of clergy sexual abuse. These additional teachings illustrate (a) the value he placed on children; (b) his warning of divine judgment for persons who harm believers; and, (c) his commandment that his followers cooperate with persons demanding actions against their will or self interests.
Matthew 18:1-7 (parallel in Luke 17:1-2)
- Children as Models of Humble Faith - When asked, "Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?," Jesus cited children as models of simple faith and humility. He knew and affirmed as most valuable their innocence, trust, and vulnerability. Any clergy person in any Christian church who exploits and harms children, precisely because they are susceptible to such exploitation and harm due to traits Jesus commended, some theologians might call "anti-Christ."
- Warning of Divine Punishment for Harming Believers - Following up his valuation on children, and those with humble faith like them, Jesus warned against severe divine punishment against anyone harming simple, trusting believers. Being forcibly drowned in the depths of the sea was preferable to what God would do to those who damage faith or harm people with childlike faith. Jesus rarely threatened divine punishment; however, for clergy to harm any believer, let alone children featured as models in this teaching, is incomprehensible.
Taken from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the texts above clearly teach his expectations of believers. Leaders in his religious community surely know and would be expected to model these doctrines.
- 5:1-10, the "Beatitudes." The majority of these teachings clearly can apply to behaviors towards children, as well as all believers and nonbelievers.
- 5:21-30, "Reconciliation Prior to Acceptable Worship." The teaching here is that any believer who knows of an offense against another person offers no acceptable worship to God until known offense is confessed, forgiveness obtained, and reconciliation established.
- 5:40-41, "Willingness to Be Wronged, Sued, and Abused." The commandments address the wrongful treatment of believers by others. This does not apply to the subject at hand--criminal behavior against children or anyone else; however, the point is that Jesus required his followers not to resist harmful treatment, including lawsuits or coercive abuse. Resistance, therefore, to accept just accusation, just lawsuits, and just coercion, is magnified as to its contrariety on the subject here.
- 7:3-5, "Honesty in Admitting One's Sins." Jesus' requires his followers to look honestly at their sins and faults; to correct those; and then to have capacity to correct others.
According to Roman Catholic doctrine, Pope Benedict XVI is "Christ's Vicar" on earth and the supreme head of the Christian Church. In that role, his high position requires his loyalty to obey and promote Jesus' teachings. One of his principal roles as shepherd is to protect and nourish the faith and morals of Catholic believers. Everything the Pope does, personally or by policy, bears directly and with great impacts on the millions who say he is Christ's supreme representative on earth. Millions more in other religions, and with no faith at all, still look to the Pope for fidelity to Jesus' teachings.
For many years, Pope Benedict XVI served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He actively sought out, censured, and removed Catholic university professors investigated and found deficient or false to Catholic teaching, such as Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Hans Kueng, among others. He was very aggressive in the removal of persons with defective doctrinal positions, allegedly for the protection of all Catholics potentially or actually "infected" with their heretical teachings.
Based on his 2001 letter, then Cardinal Ratzinger did not give equal weight and seriousness to the moral offenses of sexual crimes against minors that he did with doctrinal offenses related to eucharistic practices and penance. Now, there appears to be some evidence that he, in his capacity as bishop and archbishop, may not have responded quickly or fully to allegations of priests accused of sexual crimes against minors.
If the Pope ever engaged in official, or even unofficial, actions that ignored or protected priests harming members of their parishes, this pollutes his reputation and authority to teach others on faith and morals. Even public confession, personal repentance, and radical reforms to stop forever delay or cover-ups will be insufficient to restore healing and trust for some believers. Anyone in leadership positions in the Church who participated in any way will be seen as part of the problem, who must pay their own price by ceding authority to lead.
A Second Scandal: Comparison of the Current Situation with Anti-Semitism
The Pope's favorite preacher recently compared the rising tide of criticism to "anti-Semitism." There can be no doubt that he consulted with the Pope on what he would preach, prior to the delivery of his message. The stakes are too high for the Pope to have allowed his preacher to do anything other than express his own feelings on the matter at hand. Perhaps this speculation is incorrect.
Nevertheless, the comparison between the current scandal with anti-Semitism is graphically, blatantly, and morally offensive. For a highly educated and theologically trained preacher to make such a comparison in public is the height of insult to Christians. In fact, such an offense must be considered another expression of Christian contempt for Jews, to connect their suffering--for simply being Jewish--with any suffering felt by the Pope or those who seek to defend him.
To suffer for accumulating evidence of collaboration with criminal conduct is appropriate and just suffering. Jewish people suffered and suffer because of their identity and religion, historically very often by Christians. In fact, many of the Pope's predecessors actively participated in, or ignored, persecution of the Jews. One can only wonder what either the Pope or his preacher were thinking by such an outrageous comparison of innocent suffering with suffering related to evidence of, minimally, nonfeasance and, maximally, malfeasance. Self-interest and self-defense, against the obvious facts, surely polluted such a remark.
An Appropriate and Ethical Leadership Response to Crimes Against Children
Civil court cases already have ruled in favor of many victims. Enormous cash awards have been given, with disastrous and devastating effects on parishes, dioceses, and every program funded by the Roman Catholic Church. If the evidence mounts that the current Pope was nonfeasant, negligent, or malfeasant in any case of sexual crimes against minors by priests under his pastoral care and official administrative authority, the calls for his resignation seems relevant, if not appropriate.
The Roman Catholic Church is being ripped apart by news of children harmed by priests who abused their trust, and who abused their bodies. Healing never will come for some victims. Healing may never come for the damage done to the Roman Catholic Church by its own leaders.
Easter approaches, the time in the Church calendar when Christians remember and celebrate Jesus' voluntary sacrifice on the cross. The Christian scriptures note how he surrendered self-interest and offered himself for the healing of the world. Pope Benedict XVI is the Vicar of Christ, according to Church doctrine. If he is to model Jesus' example, who, according to the scriptures, took the form of a servant and surrendered self-interest out of love for the world, resignation would be viewed as an act of pastoral love.
Great leaders almost always have egos that lead them to attain their positions. There are exceptions. When the current Pope was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was aggressive in the use of his authority. He was considered strident and harsh by some, but the greatest defender of pure doctrine by others. He now is Pope Benedict XVI, and whatever ego he had before, sacred or profane, is still within him. One cannot imagine such a man would embrace resignation, after having worked so hard to be where he is. Perhaps he will consider another early leader in the Christian faith as a resource for his future decisions.
The Apostle Paul had an ego. He was a man confident of his call, his identity, and his mission. He made some statements about himself Jesus never did. Nevertheless, with all his self-assurance, Paul recognized his duties to love other Christians' interests more than his own. Readers are asked to review what he wrote in the Book of Romans (14-15:1-3), on the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul ate such meat, which was abundant and for sale at good prices in Rome's marketplace. For him, meat was meat. Whatever pagan priests had done with it, sacrificing it to idols, did not change its basic nature as meat to be eaten. Yet there were some believers who viewed meat sacrificed to idols as ritually unclean. To eat such meat was to incur the stain of paganism within their own bodies. There was a debate on this matter. Let us see what the self-assured Paul wrote on this matter.
If your brother is being upset by the food you eat, your life is no longer one of love. Do not, by your eating habits, destroy someone for whom the Messiah died.... So then, let us pursue the things that make for peace and mutual edification. Do not tear down God's work for the sake of food.... We who are strong have a duty to bear the weaknesses of those who are not strong, rather than please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor and act for his good, thus building him up.Pope Benedict XVI should consider giving up eating in the Vatican, if by remaining millions of Roman Catholics are offended, their faith weakened, and their healing is delayed. It would appear as if a resignation would sacrifice self-interest and bear structural similarities to the love for others taught and practiced by both Jesus and Paul.
As Prefect, the Pope was gravely concerned with false doctrine. Bad belief is serious. It leads to bad conduct, as well as divine disapproval and judgment. Bad morals, however, harm other persons. Millions of Catholics have been harmed by the bad morals of priests, and those who protected or enabled them. A papal resignation would demonstrate that reform of the Roman Catholic church requires--to use a phrase drawn from the fifteenth century--"reform in Head and members."
Ethical concern for others requires sometimes that we sacrifice self-interest. For the head of the Roman Catholic Church to resign, due to his earlier failures as a leader, would be the most powerful sign of the Pope's love for victims and their families, and for the beginning of healing for his entire communion.
A resignation would be a historic moral and ethical decision. Benedict XVI's memory would be enshrined as a Christian who loved others more than himself. "No greater love can a person have than to lay down his life for his friends." Jesus made that observation, and demonstrated it by his faith and morals. Let his Vicar consider doing the same.