Pedophilia and the Priesthood
“A Crime Against the Most Weak”
ROME, JULY 20, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of a pamphlet on “Pedophilia and the Priesthood” written by Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and member of the editorial commission of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
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Q: How does the Church evaluate cases of pedophilia committed by priests?
These crimes of pedophilia have been labeled as “a crime against the most weak,” “a horrendous sin in the eyes of God,” a crime “that damages the Church’s credibility,” characterized as “filth” by Cardinal Ratzinger in the memorable Via Crucis on Good Friday 2005, just a few days before being elected Pope. That filth is created by “many cases of sexual abuse of minors that break one’s heart, and are particularly tragic when the one committing the abuse is a priest.” To the bishops of Ireland, Benedict XVI in October 2006 stated once more that these are crimes that “break one’s heart.”
The most severe condemnation, a source of clear and unequivocal blame, is found in the words of Jesus when, identifying himself with the little ones, affirms in the synoptic Gospels: “And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:1-2).
Acts of pedophilia are the responsibility of the individual who carries them out.
It has to do with individual cases: It should not be generalized. There are some 500,000 priests in the world, and the priests who have cases brought against them are a small percentage. Those that have been proven and ended with punishment are even less: Trustworthy, nonpartisan sources say the percentage is 0.3%, that is, three priests out of 1,000. It is necessary to distinguish between “delinquent” priests who have done and continue to do bad things, from the multitude of other priests who have dedicated and continue to dedicate their lives to the good of children and adolescents.
We must not forget that in some cases the victims themselves have subsequently retracted their baseless accusations.
It must also be said that even one pedophile priest is too many. He is a priest that never should have been a priest and he should be punished severely with no ifs, ands or buts.
The Church has been working for some time with its personnel (even priests, for example, in Italy Father Fortunato Di Noto, working with his association on Internet sites) and institutions to single out, unmask, condemn and overcome the phenomenon of pedophilia, from within and from without.
Unfortunately it must also be said that some bishops were mistaken when they undervalued the facts and limited themselves to moving, from one parish to another, a priest who was found guilty of pedophilia. For this reason, the Holy See decided in 2001 to claim for itself the judgment on those crimes.
Q: Which documents of the Holy See deal with the crimes of pedophilia?
The Holy See has put out two documents that deal with the crimes of pedophilia:
1. The instruction of March 16, 1962, “Crimen Sollicitationis,” approved by Blessed Pope John XXIII and published by the Holy Office which later became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was an important document to “instruct” canonical cases and laicize the presbyters involved in the vileness of pedophilia. In particular, it dealt with violations of the sacrament of confession.
2. The “Epistula de Delictis Gravioribus” (on most grave crimes), signed May 18, 2001, by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the congregation. That letter’s objective is to give practical execution of the norms (“Normae de Gravioribus Delictis”) promulgated with the apostolic letter “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela,” published on April 30, 2001, and signed by Pope John Paul II.
These documents deal with the Church’s internal judicial acts, at the canonical level. Therefore they do not deal with the accusations and the provisions of the civil courts of states, which must be carried out according to their own laws. Whoever has addressed or addresses the ecclesiastical court can also address the civil court, to denounce similar crimes. Therefore the action of the Church is not aimed at retracting these crimes from the jurisdiction of the state and keeping them hidden.
There exist two paths to ascertain and condemn priests responsible for acts of pedophilia: that of the Church, with canon law, and that of the state with penal law. Each of these two paths is autonomous and independent of the other: the civil forum and the canonical forum must not be confused. This means that, whether or not a civil trial has taken place, the Church must necessarily carry out the canonical process. At the moment of the application of canonical punishment, if it is deemed that the guilty priest has been sufficiently punished in the civil forum, in that case the canonical punishment can be withheld.
In Italian law, a private citizen (this includes the bishop and anyone invested with ecclesial authority) is required to accuse [before the state] only crimes for which the penalty is life in prison. Yet, in Church law established in 1962, it was obligatory, under penalty of excommunication, to accuse [before the state] crimes of pedophilia if they happened in conjunction with the sacrament of confession. Therefore, from this point of view, the Church’s legislation was more severe than that of the Italian state in punishing the crimes of pedophilia.
Q: What is the procedure followed by the Church to prosecute crimes of pedophilia committed by priests?
This is the prescribed procedure: Faced with the accusation of an act of pedophilia by a priest, the bishop (or ordinary) must first of all carry out an investigation to ascertain the certainty of the accusation. Having obtained proof, the bishop (or ordinary) must give the documentation of the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to follow the procedural path already contained in the Code of Canon Law. In the meantime, in some cases, the canonical judicial procedure to apply punishment can be followed — as, for example, demission from the clerical state — or, in other cases where, for example, the evidence is very clear, the administrative procedure can be carried out.
The seriousness with which the Church evaluates and judges acts of pedophilia is shown by the fact that with a new law passed in 2001, the Holy See (and not the local bishops) decided to reserve the right to judge those crimes. The new law says that judgments concerning “the crime against the sixth commandment committed by a cleric against a minor, under the age of 18, art. 4, are reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which acts in these cases as the ‘apostolic tribunal’ — as is prescribed in ‘Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela.'”
Q: Why does the Church reserve judgment to the Holy See?
The fact that the Pope wanted to reserve to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — a dicastery of the Holy See — with the apostolic letter “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela” judgment of the acts of pedophilia committed by priests, shows that the Church considers those acts to be very serious, serious crimes on the same level of the other two serious crimes — reserved to the Holy See — that can be committed against two sacraments: the Eucharist and the holiness of confession. Therefore the Holy See’s decision has nothing to do with wanting to hide potential scandals or to diminish the seriousness of these wicked deeds, but serves to help us understand that they are very serious crimes, to which they give the maximum attention, and for this reason they reserve judgment to one of the most important offices of the Holy See, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith and not “local” entities which could possibly be influenced.
Q: Why secrecy under penalty of excommunication?
In the first place, the two documents cited by the Holy See were not secret, given the fact that they were sent to all bishops — some 5,000 — to indicate what to do in cases of pedophilia.
The 1962 instruction calls for the excommunication of whoever reveals details about the canonical penal procedure. For this reason the Instruction dealt with the way in which to proceed in cases. Therefore we speak of the need for secrecy about the legal proceedings, equal to that called for, in civil proceedings, by the judge while an investigation is in progress. Nothing more, nothing less. As is the case with every legal procedure, even the canonical ones have steps that must be secret to allow the ascertainment of the truth and to protect the innocent.
The main reason why the instruction calls for secrecy in canonical procedures was to permit any future witnesses to come forth freely, with the guarantee that their statements would be confidential and not exposed to publicity. And as a consequence, the name of the accused was kept hidden before a sentence was given in the case.
Another reason the Holy See did not want to cover up these crimes is described in a paragraph of the 1962 document, that obligated anyone, victim or witness, that was aware of any sexual abuses occurring in the confessional to come forth with that information; if not, they would incur the penalty of excommunication.
In the new legislation of 2001, the secrecy of the legal proceedings was not only applicable to cases of sexual abuse, but also for crimes against the Eucharist and those against the sacrament of penance. The letter establishes the pontifical secrecy without establishing any punishment for the violation of that secrecy, even though it is a secret that binds the conscience in a stronger way than that of a normal secret. In this case, the reason for the secret is to protect and safeguard:
— the good name of the accused, who is considered innocent until proven otherwise
— the right to privacy of the victims and witnesses
— the freedom of the superior who must freely made judgments, without being under pressure
Despite “the right to the freedom of information, it must not allow moral evil to become an occasion for sensationalism” (John Paul II, Discourse to American Bishops).
We must not forget that secrecy is needed to safeguard the dignity of the people involved: Many times those who are accused are shown to be innocent in the preliminary investigation.
Q: How are the testimonies of the victims of acts of pedophilia evaluated?
We need to underline here that:
— the testimonies of victims need to be verified, for love of the truth and of the people involved, as is the case with other crimes;
— in order to safeguard the the right of the accused to a fair trial, both sides must be heard
— in many cases the question arises: Why did the victim not report the crime after it happened but instead waited many years?
We must not forget that in the Anglo-Saxon world, the diocese to which the guilty priest belongs also shares the responsibility for the crimes committed and must offer economic recompense to the victim: Besides suffering from the scandal itself, the Church also suffers economically (which can be pleasing to some …)
Q: What does the Church do for the victims of these crimes?
The Church is deeply saddened for the innocent victims, as well as for those men who never should have become priests and who, in some cases, received very little condemnation for the crimes they committed.
The Church invites everyone:
— to console the victims
— to support them in their quest for justice
— to immediately declare these crimes
We must not forget that the Church is also a victim, because those crimes are a serious offense to the dignity of the person, created in the image and likeness of God; and they damage Christian witness.
To the victims and to their families the Church offers:
— assistance through its institutions and persons;
— necessary collaboration with public institutions, when civil or penal laws call for it, with attention, delicacy and discretion for the people involved.
The Church community must, in becoming aware of these diabolical acts, know how to more severely condemn them, without confusing reservedness with a conspiracy of silence.
“The Catholic Church had to learn at her own expense the consequences of the grave errors of some of her members and has become more able to react and to prevent pedophilia. Society as a whole must realize that the protection of minors and the fight against pedophilia has a long way to go” (Father Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See’s Press Office).
In fact, the problem of pedophilia does not only involve the Catholic Church, but is a worldwide problem, especially in the West; it afflicts various categories of persons and professions; it has many faces — like sexual tourism, child pornography, sexual exploitation of minors: these phenomenon, according to data from the U.N., afflict more than 150 million young girls and boys. This is another alarming sign of the loss of fundamental values, like love, human dignity –especially that of minors — and the positive sense of sexuality.
Therefore it is urgent for everyone to pay full attention to the words Benedict XVI addressed to the Irish bishops in October 2006: “Establish the truth of what happened in the past, take all measures to avoid it happening in the future, ensure that the principles of justice are respected and, above all, heal the victims and all those who have been affected by these abnormal crimes.”
For further reading on this topic, please consult the following pontifical documents:
— Holy Office, “Crimen Sollicitationis,” instruction of March 16, 1962;
— John Paul II, “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela,” apostolic letter promulgating the “Normae de Gravioribus Delictis,” April 30, 2001; and
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Epistula de Delictis Gravioribus,” May 18, 2001.