Short-lived scoop on Vatican changing laws on sex abuse
Ouch! Just imagine you write the top story on the front page of the New York Times — and it gets promptly denied. That’s what happened today. Time had the same story, too, but only on their Web site. In both cases, the journalists were trying to pin down what if anything comes now, after Pope Benedict has spoken so strongly about the shame of the sexual abuse scandal and his determination to bar pedophiles from the priesthood. The victims who met him felt very strongly that Benedict’s gesture was a promise of more steps to come. But what? We had a story examining this question yesterday but we were not among the few at a closed lunch with Cardinal William Levada organised by Time for a few U.S. journalists.
The story the NYT and Time took away from that session was that Levada, who succeeded the pope as the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, had hinted that the Catholic Church was considering changing its laws to pursue more abuse cases. More specifically, he was supposed to have said it was considering lengthening the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases. Under current canon law, an abuse victim has to report within 10 years of his or her 18th birthday. Levada said some victims took longer to come to grips with the issue and should be able to report abuse and see it investigated even if it happened more than a decade ago.
We saw the NYT report on Friday evening and it didn’t seem watertight. We’d also been told that Time was going to post the transcript of Levada’s remarks, but it wasn’t posted late Friday evening. So we left it over for Saturday.
The first opportunity to check this was after the pope’s Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The chief Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, gave a briefing and was asked right away what Levada had said about the reports. Here are the operative quotes from a lively session in Italian and English:
“This morning, Cardinal Levada told me they hadn’t understood it correctly. There is no change coming … Levada said the norms he spoke of were already in force.”
“He told me this this morning after reading the article in the New York Times.”
“He said we didn’t talk about anything new. The things we spoke about are already in force.”
Asked if Levada meant the journalists had misunderstood him, Lombardi said, “That is what I understood.”
So if the statute of limitations has already been extended, nothing new is coming there. Talk about changes to canon law were already in the air yesterday and I asked a specialist what he thought could happen. “I haven’t seen what law could be put into place that hasn’t already been put into place,”Mgr. Charles Guarino, a canon lawyer in the Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island, told me. “It’s already in the code of canon law in terms of what precautions need to take place and what responsibilities exist for seminary rectors and local bishops.” Guarino used to work with the pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the job Levada has now). He focused especially on the U.S. sexual abuse cases and he works on those cases in the Rockville Centre diocese now.
Something else came out of the Levada lunch and Beliefnet’s blogger David Gibson zeroed in on it. He said the U.S. cardinal
bristled at a suggestion that some bishops had “aided and abetted” priest-abusers by not acting to remove them.
“I don’t believe that,” Levada said. “I know bishops who have said to me, if I had known then what I know now, I would have acted differently.” But he said the bishops who moved abusers around to other parishes or did not remove them from ministry were acting on bad advice from experts and psychiatrists.
“So it [the scandal] has been a learning experience for bishops,” the cardinal said.
“I personally do not accept that there has been a broad base of bishops guilty of aiding and abetting pedophiles … If I thought there were, I would certainly want to talk to them about that.”
Some critics have said the Church should not only remove pedophile priests but also the bishops that shuffled them around and tried to cover up the problem. In his comments above, Levada disputes the contention that many bishops did this. Guarino also did in his comments to me. So that doesn’t look like a place to expect changes either.
Another suggestion from critics has been that Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Boston archbishop who resigned at the height of the sexual abuse scandal, be removed from the senior post he was given in Roman exile. Law is archpriest of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, a prestigious post that is quite public. He has several other responsibilities at the Vatican, but they are internal.
What do you think about how the Church has handled this scandal? Should some bishops have to carry the can for it? Would you think Law should step down from his public post?