My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I like Rex Murphy. I look forward to his commentaries on CBC television. I'm not always sure of what he is saying but I love the colourful way he says it.
In a recent commentary on Christopher Hitchens, "The Great Catholic Cover-Up," Murphy opines that Hitchens is one of the most militant, abrasive secularists of our time, perhaps only second in renown to the increasingly tedious and tendentious Richard Dawkins. Militant secularism is a peculiar phenomenon. It prides itself above all on reason, but reason in a very shrunken capacity - a kind of blustering, blistering, angry half-logic that perpetually targets the anachronistic straw-man conception of God as a big, bearded White Guy in the sky.
The same dismissive scorn shows up in Hitchens' piece, particularly in the coda to his loose pseudo-arguments about Pope Benedict's "responsibility" over the alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in Germany: "Ratzinger himself may be banal, but his whole career has the stench of evil - a clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel."
I agree with Murphy that Hitchens is simply "bluster masquerading as reason." What are the facts?
From 1981 to 2001 Cardinal Ratzinger was in charge of a department that dealt with the defrocking of priests, but not with suspensions and penalties for paedophile priests, which were the responsibility of local bishops. A number of bishops failed to suspend the abusive priests, some of whom continued to abuse. That is the scandal. It has been exposed and dealt with, and a number of bishops have, as a result, resigned. More important, guidelines are now in place to prevent it ever happening again.
In 2001, Pope John Paul asked him to review the local churches' handling of clerical abuse cases to ensure not only consistency and justice but also to ensure that the priests were more speedily dealt with. He accomplished this by amending the procedure for defrocking to allow for a fast-track procedure that did not involve trials.
The following is a brief summary of the Motu Proprio "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela." of 2001.
A: Preliminary Procedures
The local diocese investigates every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric. Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.
If the allegation has a semblance of truth, the case is referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The local bishop transmits all the necessary information to the CDF and expresses his opinion on the procedures to be followed and the measures to be adopted in the short and long term.
During the preliminary stage and until the case is concluded, the bishop may impose precautionary measures to safeguard the community, including the victim(s). Indeed, the local bishop always retains power to protect children by restricting the activities of any priest in his diocese. This is part of his ordinary authority, which he is encouraged to exercise to whatever extent is necessary to assure that children do not come to harm, and this power can be exercised at the bishop's discretion before, during and after any canonical proceeding.
B: Procedures authorized by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith
The CDF studies the case presented by the local bishop and may also ask for supplementary information where necessary. The CDF has a number of options:
1. Penal Processes
The CDF may authorize the local bishop to conduct a judicial penal trial before a local Church tribunal. Any appeal in such cases would eventually be lodged to a tribunal of the CDF.
The CDF may authorize the local bishop to conduct an administrative penal process before a delegate of the local bishop assisted by two assessors. The accused priest is called to respond to the accusations and to review the evidence. The accused has a right to present recourse to the CDF against a decree condemning him to a canonical penalty. The decision of the Cardinals members of the CDF is final.
Should the cleric be judged guilty, both judicial and administrative penal processes can condemn a cleric to a number of canonical penalties, the most serious of which is dismissal from the clerical state. The question of damages can also be treated directly during these procedures.
2. Cases referred directly to the Holy Father
In very grave cases where a civil criminal trial has found the cleric guilty of sexual abuse of minors or where the evidence is overwhelming, the CDF may choose to take the case directly to the Holy Father with the request that the Pope issue a decree of "ex officio" dismissal from the clerical state. There is no canonical remedy against such a papal decree.
The CDF also brings to the Holy Father requests by accused priests who, cognizant of their crimes, ask to be dispensed from the obligation of the priesthood and want to return to the lay state. The Holy Father grants these requests for the good of the Church.
3. Disciplinary Measures
In cases where the accused priest has admitted to his crimes and has accepted to live a life of prayer and penance, the CDF authorizes the local bishop to issue a decree prohibiting or restricting the public ministry of such a priest. Such decrees are imposed through a penal precept which would entail a canonical penalty for a violation of the conditions of the decree, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state. Administrative recourse to the CDF is possible against such decrees. The decision of the CDF is final.
Pope Benedict is not responsible for a coverup. On the contrary, he is the one in the Vatican who has done most to rid the church of this scourge. He is the one who has acted most consistently and energetically to improve the church's handling of these cases.
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary