Breaking! Benedict followed church law

Pope Benedict XVI sprinkles holy water during the Pentecostal mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

For a few months now, mainstream media outlets have been attempting to tie Pope Benedict XVI to a cover-up of the clerical sex abuse scandal that plagued the Roman Catholic Church. The claims themselves haven't made the case. In fact, those reporters most knowledgeable of the Vatican situation, such as John Allen, say that Benedict has done more than anyone else to improve how the church handles abuse cases. Most of the problem with media coverage seems to be wholesale confusion with the rules and guidelines that determine how the church deals with problem priests. This Associated Press story that ran in the Boston Globe provides a good example of that confusion in the opening graphs:

The future Pope Benedict XVI refused to remove a US priest from the ministry after the priest confessed to molesting numerous children and even served prison time for it, simply because the cleric wouldn't agree to such a discipline.

The case provides the latest evidence of how changes in church law under Pope John Paul II frustrated and hamstrung US bishops struggling with an abuse crisis that would eventually worsen.

But the time of this case, bishops did not need Vatican permission to remove a priest from active ministry. They had full rights to do this on their own. Springfield (Ill.) bishop Daniel Ryan could have removed the priest without getting Vatican permission.

Another version of this Associated Press story puts it this way:

The future Pope Benedict XVI refused to defrock an American priest who confessed to molesting numerous children and even served prison time for it, simply because the cleric wouldn't agree to the discipline.

The problem with this phrasing is that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did not have the authority at that time to laicize a priest involuntarily. It's sort of like saying "Attorney General Eric Holder refuses to order involuntary kidney transplant." It may be true, in one sense, but it's just not even a possibility. Our courts have processes for how we handle the accused. These processes help us assign cases to the proper court and help us grant the accused certain rights.

Now, if you read the actual story, much of this is explained quite well. In fact, the lede -- of either version excerpted above -- is dramatically different from the meat of the story. The meat of the story does a pretty good job of explaining the frustration and hamstringing mentioned. It even explains that the priest was laicized a few years later when he agreed to it.

Another mark in this story's favor is that it doesn't hide the scandal of one of the key players, Springfield bishop Daniel Ryan. He resigned following claims he had failed to act against abusive priests because he feared exposure of his own homosexual activities. Bishop Ryan was suspended from public ministry in 2002 following claims he had molested a young man.

Few will disagree that the church did a poor job of fighting child abuse in its midst. That story is much more complicated than a conspiracy theory involving the pope. But apart from the misleading headline and lede, this story does a good job of exploring part of that complexity -- how canon law hampered some efforts to deal with problem priests.

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