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Bishops have the power to preserve church's image — changing that would be a historical revolution.
Pope Benedict XVI, when he enforced church doctrine as Cardinal Ratzinger, helped set the tone when he resisted calls to defrock a pedophile priests in California, insisting he had to consider “the good of the universal church.”
A leading canon law expert said the church’s worry about the scandal sex abuse allegations will cause — which often leads to their cover up — reflects a deeply rooted legal principle that governs the church.
“The principal of scandal is very important in penal canon law,” said Marco Ventura, a professor of religious law at the University of Siena, referring to the Vatican’s legal code. “Preventing scandals from taking place is crucial from all points of view. The bishop is in charge of determining how to fight against scandals which could affect the good image of the church,” he added in an interview.
Ventura describes canon law as a murky penal code that leaves punishment to the discretion of church authorities.
It places all power in the hands of bishops on matters in their diocese. When crimes occur, church law requires that bishops weigh the impact of scandal before acting, Ventura said.
In one canon law section alone — The Application of Penalties — the word scandal is used five times.
“The bishop could say, ‘In the name of scandal I act against this criminal or, in the name of scandal I do not,’” he said.
It comes down to which will better protect parishioners and the good image of the church, says Ventura, an editorial committee member of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, and the author of two books on canon law.
The bishop might decide that laying charges against a pedophile priest could help the church by showing the community it takes such matters seriously. Or, he could decide that a cover up would spare parishioners emotional turmoil and prevent competing churches from using the crimes to lure Catholics away from the fold.
Scores of examples in Ireland, Germany, the United States and Canada — to name only a few countries — indicate bishops often decided the latter was more appropriate.
“According to the logic of the [canon law] system, a bishop should be judged not according to the pressing needs of society or the interests of the victim, but he should be judged on the basis of how he protected the community of believers he is in charge of,” Ventura said, explaining a legal system he believes should be reformed.
In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a directive stating that all bishops should send allegations of sex abuse to his office. But Ventura argued the final decision remains in the hands of bishops.
He said the pope should have the “courage” to plainly explain to Catholics the legal system that governs the church they uphold. Or, he should change canon law to reflect “a different understanding of scandal” and to limit the power of bishops.
“But limiting the power of bishops would be a historical revolution,” he said, suggesting that won’t be happening any time soon.