Why is laicization so important?

So yet another story in the Vatican Media Frenzy 2010 came out on Friday. And the Associated Press did its best to make it seem like the story to end all stories:

The future Pope Benedict XVI resisted pleas to defrock a California priest with a record of sexually molesting children, citing concerns including "the good of the universal church," according to a 1985 letter bearing his signature.

The correspondence, obtained by The Associated Press, is the strongest challenge yet to the Vatican's insistence that Benedict played no role in blocking the removal of pedophile priests during his years as head of the Catholic Church's doctrinal watchdog office.

With phrases such as "resisted pleas," "strongest challenge yet," and "blocking the removal of pedophile priests," this sounds utterly horrific, right? And who knows, it may be bad. But in what is becoming a good early indication that there may be problems with a given Vatican story, the phrase "canon law" -- much less an intelligent discussion of what this all means in terms of canon law -- is nowhere to be found in the story.

Yes, part of the blame has to go to the Vatican, it seems, for taking the position that the appropriate response to a hostile and unfair press is to be hostile in return. When the reporters go to the Vatican for comment the Vatican's public relations shop allegedly responds by saying, without much elaboration, that the story is unfair.

I'm not Catholic but I have been reading many Catholic blogs in an attempt to get to the bottom of this feeding frenzy. And it's not uncommon for blog commenters, after reading some helpful explanation, to ask why the Vatican hasn't responded more forcefully to the stories. I haven't seen a story that explains that, but Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post had a great story and a great idea for a story -- looking at the frustration American Catholics feel over the manner in which the Vatican's public relations shop has responded.

Anyway, regardless of the Vatican's response to reporters, the media has an obligation to report stories fairly. And this latest AP story hinges upon convincing readers that Pope Benedict XVI was keeping children in harm's way when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

One concern with that narrative, or the reason why context is needed, is that defrocking isn't the only way that the Catholic Church deals with problem priests. And contrary to the claim of the AP story, Benedict's role in this tale actually wasn't related to "removing" the priest. He'd already been removed from pastoral duty. The question wasn't about removal or even about punishment. The whole reason Benedict's office was even involved had nothing to do with pedophilia. We've already discussed that the office had no jurisdiction over sexual crimes until 2001. This happened back in the 1980s. The role that Benedict and his office played in this tale is that the priest in question had requested to be laicized, or to be given lay status. When the papers talk about "defrocking," that's what they're actually talking about.

Phil Lawler at Catholic Culture says there are key questions that are left unaddressed by the media. Here are a few of them:

* Was Cardinal Ratzinger responding to the complaints of priestly pedophilia? No. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which the future Pontiff headed, did not have jurisdiction for pedophile priests until 2001. The cardinal was weighing a request for laicization of Kiesle.

* Had Oakland's Bishop John Cummins sought to laicize Kiesle as punishment for his misconduct? No. Kiesle himself asked to be released from the priesthood. The bishop supported the wayward priest's application.

* Was the request for laicization denied? No. Eventually, in 1987, the Vatican approved Kiesle's dismissal from the priesthood.

* Did Kiesle abuse children again before he was laicized? To the best of our knowledge, No. The next complaints against him arose in 2002: 15 years after he was dismissed from the priesthood.

Now I'm not sure about all the facts in play, but there is no question that this story is about whether a priest should or should not be laicized. And while it vigorously pronounces judgment against Benedict for delaying that laicization for two years, there's no discussion about why that's an appropriate thing to do in this case. This wasn't about punishment but about granting the priest something he wanted.

And I'm not entirely sure why the reporters feel they are in a position to pronounce judgment when they don't even seem that well versed in canon law.

I don't really have a say in the church's internal discipline procedures, but I can see some folks arguing that at least the church actually had a role in overseeing this priest before he was laicized. It's not like he went to jail afterward. Once laicized, he was simply roaming free of any affiliation. That's not necessarily a safer situation for the community.

Jimmy Akin at the National Catholic Register says:

So why rage over how fast or whether these men were laicized if their bishops had already taken steps to stop the threat they posed? (Steps that in the Murphy case the CDF said had to be strengthened at once.)

I'm not saying that there isn't room for criticism here, even vigorous criticism, or that these guys shouldn't have been laicized, or that the CDF shouldn't have acted more swiftly than it did.

It does seem that stories going after Benedict's role with canon law should at least have working knowledge of canon law and the pros and cons of various ways of dealing with priests. Until then, I guess we'll just read stories about how Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are hatching plans to arrest the Pope.

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