Sexual abuse: two Popes late on the scene. Guest blogger: Michael Kelly SJ

Early in the 20th Century, the French Catholic poet and writer Charles Peguy observed that, at the turn of each age, the Catholic Church arrives a little late and a little breathless.

It was not till the 1960s, at Vatican II, that the Church absorbed and authorized the major influence of the French Revolution – that sovereignty inhered in the people rather than the Sovereign – when it declared that the Church was the People of God rather than the aristocracy of the Church (the Pope, bishops and clergy).

John XXIII brought the freedoms declared in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights a little faster – only a lapse of fifteen years between its proclamation and John XXIII’s encyclicals effectively endorsing them as Catholic belief too.

The internal procedures managed by Canon Law are taking a little longer, as Kieran Tapsell has described in this blog of November 17. The Vatican is catching up with where everyone else is, but slowly and reluctantly. It is only in recent years that the Vatican has allowed bishops to report sexual abuse by clergy to the police of various jurisdictions and has itself expelled convicted clerics from their status.

A key document about the practice of the Vatican – to keep any accusations against a cleric an exclusively internal matter for the Church and away from the police and any legal proceedings – is the letter to the Irish bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), led then by Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict in 2005. It was written in 1997 and reported in the New York Times in 2011. In 2010, Pope Benedict wrote to Irish Catholics about how “concerned” and “disturbed” he was by clerical sexual abuse in Ireland.

The 1997 communication, emphasizing that civil procedures could harm the Canonical processes, is conveniently overlooked when Benedict is being shown as the hero of the Vatican on the subject of disciplining clergy on sex abuse.

And the activities of the CDF, a small office of 25 people who were directly managed by Cardinal  Ratzinger, had their impact in Australia where some of the first formal steps by bishops’ conferences anywhere in the world occurred under the leadership of Bishop Geoff Robinson. For his efforts in the development of Towards Healing, the national protocol on what is referred to as “Professional Standards” expected of those employed in the Church’s work, the CDF attacked him for being a trouble maker, even heretical.

The truth of the matter of Cardinal Ratzinger’s change on the subject is that he was a late convert to recognizing just what a problem sex abuse had become, how extensive it was and how utterly inadequate the provisions of Canon Law were to meet its challenge. He and his then assistant and later Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, both played down attention to the issue claiming that it was exaggerated by the media and stirred up by enemies of the Church.

During Benedict’s reign as Pope, the law changed substantially and the level of openness to civil authorities went from zero to the encouragement of full cooperation.

Joseph Ratzinger’s conversion, as was explained to me by the biographer of the notorious Marcial Marciel, the disgraced and deceased founder of the Legionaries of Christ, only happened from 2004 when he discovered just how perverse, abusive and utterly deceptive Marciel was. I asked the biographer how Marciel came to be exposed.

He said that someone in the inner circle of the leadership of Legionaries had finally had enough of Marciel’s lies, deception and hypocrisy. He decided that Cardinal Ratzinger was the only one of the powerful Cardinals in Rome who could do anything about it because he hadn’t been on the receiving end of financial “gifts” from Marciel. as others had been.

It was pointless going to Pope John Paul II at the end of his long reign who could see nothing wrong with Marciel, thought him a devout supporter and that the accusations against Marciel were those of the disgruntled and disaffected whose views were biased and prejudiced.

This disaffected Legionary leader knew that every day Cardinal Ratzinger walked from his apartment on one side of St Peter’s Square, straight to his office at the CDF on the other side of the Square and at the same time every day.

He decided to introduce himself to Cardinal Ratzinger out there in the Piazza. He did just that. The Cardinal professed shock and amazement at what he was told of Marciel’s abuse of Legionary seminarians and of his two families and children from them.

Cardinal Ratzinger asked the Legionary to come to his office later in the day where he got one of his staff. a Maltese Monsignor, Charles Scicluna, onto the job immediately. From then on, Scicluna made a name for himself as an energetic prosecutor of sex abusing clerics, culminating in an unprecedented international conference (with experts and bishops and Vatican administrators attending) on the subject of sex abuse in the Church. It was convened by the Jesuits’ Gregorian University. Scicluna was the keynote speaker. He is now a bishop in Malta.

Joseph Ratzinger was a late convert not only to the scale of the problem but also to doing anything about it. The continuing presence Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston who fled his See when the whole horror of sex abuse in his Archdiocese and his handling of it became clear a decade ago, is testimony that some in the Church are brought to justice and others escape it.

Cardinal Law is a prisoner of Rome and if he returned to the US, he would be charged with, among other things, extensive cover-ups which, in Australia, would be called perverting the course of justice.

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Father Michael Kelly is an Australian Jesuit who directed the Catholic Church's news feature and commentary service, UCA News, 2008-2018. He is the publisher of the English editions of La Croix International and La Civilta Cattolica, the 170 year old Jesuit publication of the Italian Jesuits.

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