Law of the Letter

When Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday I was surprised, but on reflection I realised it probably had to be. Ratzinger has been running the show for the past few years anyway, so it would be odd to continue “John Paul’s legacy” by ditching his closest adviser. And, I thought, as a Vatican bureaucrat he was unlikely to have made poor pastoral decisions about child-abusing priests that might come back to haunt him. But was I mistaken on the latter point? From today’s Observer:

Pope Benedict XVI faced claims last night he had ‘obstructed justice’ after it emerged he issued an order ensuring the church’s investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret.

The order was made in a confidential letter, obtained by The Observer, which was sent to every Catholic bishop in May 2001.

Erm…that would be the “confidential letter” that has been available on-line since at least the end of 2003 here. But back to the Observer:

It asserted the church’s right to hold its inquiries behind closed doors and keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood. The letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected as John Paul II’s successor last week.

…It orders that ‘preliminary investigations’ into any claims of abuse should be sent to Ratzinger’s office, which has the option of referring them back to private tribunals in which the ‘functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests’.

The letter was passed to the Observer by lawyer Daniel Shea, who previously revealed a 1962 Vatican instruction on the subject to the newspaper.

For those of us unversed in canon legalise, the 2001 letter is a dense and difficult read. The relevant passages seem to be:

The more grave delicts [“wilful wrongs”] both in the celebration of the sacraments and against morals reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are…

A list follows, ending with:

…A delict against morals, namely: the delict committed by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue [the commandment against adultery, here meant I suppose to encompass sexual sin more generally] with a minor below the age of 18 years.

Only these delicts, which are indicated above with their definition, are reserved to the apostolic tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As often as an ordinary [i.e. a church official] or hierarch [e.g. bishop] 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.

Of course, nothing here excludes the “ordinary or hierarch” from co-operating with local police forces in his “preliminary investigation”. No doubt the letter’s defenders will say that the procedure it lays out is merely for the purposes of church discipline: it is not meant to be a substitute for a secular criminal investigation and prosecution [UPDATE: Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Houston makes this defence today]. But nothing commends the investigators to work with law enforcement agencies either, and the facts of the church scandals speak for themselves. The Observer also carries an unhappy old quote from Ratzinger’s co-author, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone:

In my opinion, the demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offence of paedophilia is unfounded.

Bertone argued that putting such an obligation on bishops would undermine the “professional secrecy” of the priesthood, and would prevent priests from “confiding” in their bishops. Why these concerns trump the need for justice to be done and to be seen to be done is not explained; but I’ll bear them in mind the next time I hear (literal!) pontifications on the evils of relativism. The 2001 letter also has this passage (numbers in brackets refer to footnotes):

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.(11) The prescription runs according to the universal and common law;(12) 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.

According to the Observer:

Daniel Shea, the lawyer for the two alleged victims who discovered the letter, said: ‘It speaks for itself. You have to ask: why do you not start the clock ticking until the kid turns 18? It’s an obstruction of justice.’

Father John Beal, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, gave an oral deposition under oath on 8 April last year in which he admitted to Shea that the letter extended the church’s jurisdiction and control over sexual assault crimes.

Ratzinger was also responsible for shelving a sex abuse investigation into Marcial Maciel Degollado, who founded Legionaries of Christ in Mexico. That church investigation (the allegations are too old to interest the Mexican police) was recently reopened. The NY Times reports:

It remains unclear why Cardinal Ratzinger changed his mind and reopened the investigation. He has never commented on the matter. Among those who have raised the complaints and others who are closely following the case, one theory suggests that he knew he would be a candidate for pope and did not want the matter hanging over his head when the conclave was held. Another suggests that Cardinal Ratzinger did not want Pope John Paul II’s reputation to be tarnished by allegations that the pope had done nothing to pursue charges against a friend. It is also possible that Cardinal Ratzinger received new information.