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In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, left, is welcomed by Pope Francis as he returns at the Vatican from the pontifical summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, 35 km South-Est from Rome, Thursday, May 2, 2013. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI came home on Thursday to a new house and a new pope, as an unprecedented era begins of a retired pontiff living side-by-side with a reigning one inside the Vatican gardens. In background is archbishop George Gaenswein, prefect of the papal household. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano, HO)
In October of 1999, at the end of a meeting of departmental chiefs in the Vatican, I confronted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and challenged him. The meeting was meant to discuss available options for dealing with the already-burgeoning international crisis of sexual abuse. Everyone in that room aimed for justice, especially for the victims, but also for the accused. Ratzinger was leading the curial push to decisively deal with perpetrators who were still a threat because of some weak-minded administrators and their policy to move criminals first to treatment and then back into ministry.
I had been invited by the Congregation for Clergy to present an ethical analysis of the extrajudicial, administrative practices used by the church to prosecute cases of clerical sexual abuse. At that meeting, I highlighted the risks of violating the natural right to a fair trial. The cardinals expressed differences of opinion regarding their concern for the rights of the accused and the terrible wounds of the victims who had been abused by those whom they had held in sacred trust. Despite his gentleness, Ratzinger demonstrated deep determination to satisfy justice.
Ratzinger did not aim for a middle place between the competing interests of the victims and of the accused, but to ascertain the truth, reach a verdict, and impose a just penalty, all while doing everything possible to heal the victims and repair the damage done to the church and society. After noting my concern for judicial due process, he indicated his unshakeable commitment to do everything possible to root out abusive clergy, fully cognizant that he could be criticized by canon lawyers for eliminating traditional steps in ecclesiastical trials designed to protect the rights of the accused.
That moment in 1999 was an emergency. The problem was even worse than it appeared. First under John Paul, Ratzinger drafted new norms, extended statutes of limitations, and even offered dispensations from the retroactive statutes of limitations in the case of the most grievous crimes committed against minors.
Once elected pope, Benedict continued the reform. He revised the church’s penal law and sharpened its teeth to make sure that no criminal could evade sanction. He created tribunals, met with victims and purified the ranks of clergy from those who might hurt the young. He held judicial trials and removed more than a 1,000 from the priesthood and several from the episcopacy. Towards the end of his papacy, in 2010, Benedict again reformed church law to empower a tribunal to hear cases brought against bishops and cardinals.
Benedict is rightly known for uplifting men and women of good will by preaching that God is love and Jesus is divine Logos incarnate. Benedict also taught about the dark side of humanity. “Evil,” he once stated “draws its power from indecision and concern for what other people think.” He had experienced the malignancy of the Nazi regime and reconfirmed his commitment to sweep out the filth from the Bride of Christ.
Upon retirement, Benedict explained that he no longer enjoyed the needed vigor, of body and spirit, to govern the church. He stepped aside so that a younger man might continue the task and follow through with reform of church governance.
Now, the world observes the eloquent gestures in these first few weeks of Pope Francis, while wondering whether the new pope will continue Benedict’s reform. Francis has already shown the world the Christ-like characteristics that the cardinals, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had been seeking for the new pope.
In his third tweet, Pope Francis stated: “True power is service. The pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.” And when archbishop in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio commented on the responsibility of bishops regarding priests who have committed sexual abuse. “You must never look away” he said. “You cannot be in a position of power and use it to destroy the life of another person.” It would be a mistake, he added, to put the church’s reputation first, in a “corporate spirit to avoid damaging the image of the institution.”
After meeting for the first time with Archbishop Mueller, the head of the Vatican’s office responsible for prosecuting culpable clerics, whether priests, bishops, or even cardinals, Francis publicly confirmed his commitment to continue Benedict’s efforts to protect minors, assist victims of abuse, prosecute criminals according to due process, and to help bishops’ conferences around the world to implement the “necessary directives in this area that is so important for the church’s witness and credibility.”
Cardinals have confided that when deliberating in the Sistine Chapel, they were looking for a pope who could lead a reform of the Vatican while continuing Benedict’s policy of zero tolerance for sexual abuse. Benedict’s new laws specify how to satisfy justice and guarantee accountability within the church by bringing to trial even the highest ranking clerics accused of abuse of power, whether by sexual or financial crimes. In a mystical apparition, Jesus told St. Francis of Assisi to repair his church. All signs point to a Pope Francis ready to keep cleaning the house of God.
Rev. Robert A. Gahl, Jr. is Associate Professor of Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.