In the indispensable Commonweal, Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School and eminent canon lawyer, does a yeoman’s job of trying to sort out the Vatican’s sexual abuse story. The basic problem is this: In his 2001 letter clarifying John Paul II’s motu proprio establishing the authority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in sexual abuse cases, future pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted that the authority of the CDF (over which he presided) was “in force until now” (hucusque vigens). That is to say, such authority, granted in the 1922 papal letter Crimen Sollicitationis, had not been not superseded by the 1983 revision of canon law, which appeared to place authority elsewhere.
But, Cafardi contends, in order to maintain “bureaucratic bella figura” (proper form), Ratzinger fibbed. The CDF didn’t really have, or at least didn’t understand itself to have, authority over such cases. Rather than acknowledge that he had won the authority in a struggle with the Congregation of the Clergy and its lenient leader, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Ratzinger gave the impression that nothing had changed. So in what might be taken as a bit of re-revisionist history, the “Historical Introduction” appended to Benedict’s new set of norms points out that between 1994 and 2001, “no reference was made to the previous competence of the Holy Office [as the CDF was formerly known] over such cases.” Previous or in force until now? You be the judge.
Well, OK. Cafardi’s major point is that this is the kind of thing that happens when laws are promulgated in secrecy. What he doesn’t offer is an explanation for why the Vatican, in 1962 as well as 1922, was so determined to keep under wraps the fact that the CDF was responsible for conducting trials of priests charged with the sexual crimes outlined in Crimen–such that bishops would only be informed of it on a need-to-know basis. If then.
This can’t have been because no one was supposed to know that soliciting sex in the confessional was a serious canonical crime. As Cafardi points out, that had been the case for centuries. The only explanation I can come up with is that Rome did not want it generally known that the CDF was responsible for conducting laicization trials of priests charged with ugly sex crimes because, well, then people might want to know who was being tried and what the outcome was. And that could only create…scandal.
Be all that as it may, it’s evident that when the Holy Office/CDF regained its authority over sexual abuse cases, it was with less authority than it had under Crimen. That’s because, hitherto, there were no statutes of limitations for matters under CDF jurisdiction. The supposed increase in the limitation for sexual abuse cases, from five years in the 1983 Canon Law to 10 years in 2001, to 20 years in the latest papal instruction, shouldn’t obscure that fact.