New York Times Q & A on sex abuse scandal

With a sexual abuse scandal once again testing the Roman Catholic Church, this time raising questions about Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of the matter, reporters for The Times are answering readers questions about the developments.

Laurie Goodstein, The Times’s national religion correspondent, and Nicholas Kulish, the paper’s Berlin bureau chief, and Rachel Donadio, The Times’ Rome bureau chief, will answer questions about the church’s role in covering up any abuse and how the latest scandal may be different from the sexual abuse cases that rocked the American church over the past decade.

Readers can submit their questions in the comments field below. The reporters responses will be posted here on The Lede through the week.

6:47 p.m., Tuesday, March 16 |Reporter RepliesLaurie Goodstein, The Times’ national religion correspondent, posts this responses to readers’ questions.

Q.Christopher Hitchens has written that the future pope circulated a confidential document in 2001 threatening excommunication for those revealing information about sexual abuse by priests. Is this true? One would have thought it would be part of the current news articles.
SB, Princeton, N.J.

A.I think Mr. Hitchens is conflating several documents and putting a particularly conspiratorial spin on things, but I have an idea what he’s talking about. On May 18, 2001, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, issued a confidential letter to Catholic bishops on new procedures for handling cases of sexual abuse. He said that his Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, would be taking over the adjudication of such cases. That meant that bishops from the world could forward alleged cases of abuse to the Congregation to determine whether an accused priest should be laicized, that is, removed permanently from the priesthood, or whether some other sort of discipline was necessary.

In the letter was a footnote to a previous document, issued in 1962, which stressed that such cases must be heard in utmost secrecy, and that there would be penalties for those who violate that secrecy. Canonists who have analyzed the document say that the reasons for the Church’s emphasis on secrecy were 1) to avoid scandal to the Church and, 2) some of the abuse cases occurred in the process of a priest hearing a confession, a sacrament which is supposed to be protected with total confidentiality. But some of these same canonists acknowledge that the emphasis on secrecy and on handling cases internally, within the church, contributed to what eventually became a systematic cover-up of abuse cases.

Q.If it is proven that the pope is directly implicated in this cover up ,what do you think will happen to the pope? Could he be forced to resign? And what do you think will happen to the Catholic Church as we know it?
Francis, Dublin

A.No one can predict what is going to happen, but it is not likely you are going to see the pope resign. Most of the bishops who were discovered to have repeatedly mishandled cases of abusive priests still have their positions. In fact, very few bishops have resigned in the course of the child abuse scandal, unless they themselves were accused of sexually abusing minors. That’s why it was so unusual when four bishops from Ireland resigned late last year in the wake of a damning investigation by the Irish government into child abuse in Catholic institutions.

Certainly the spreading scandal over abuse cases is a devastating and unprecedented episode in church history, so something unexpected could happen. However, a pope is usually a pope for life. Even retirements are rare. A church historian, Christopher M. Bellitto, author of “101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy” (Paulist Press, 2008), said that there is nothing to stop a pope from resigning, according to canon law. But the last one to do so was Gregory XII in 1415,a time when there were three popes contending to be the rightful pontiff (the other two were deposed by a church council).

4:05 p.m., Tuesday, March 16 |Reporter RepliesNicholas Kulish has responded to several readers’ questions below. We will continue to post reporter responses to readers’ questions on the developing story through the week.

Q.How is the Archdiocese of Munich answering the objection that it is highly unlikely that Cardinal Ratzinger, the person who would have signed the letter of appointment of all clerics in a diocese, did not know about the assignment of “H” to pastoral work in 1980?

A.The archdiocese and the Vatican have taken the position that the decision to allow Father Peter Hullermann to resume pastoral work was entirely the responsibility of then-Archbishop Ratzinger’s deputy, the vicar general at the time, Gerhard Gruber. The Archdiocese has denied requests for additional interviews and information to clarify the pope’s role, including how this could have happened without his knowledge.

Q.Who paid the fine after Father Hullermann was convicted of abusing children? The New York Times has written that ‘few restrictions’ were placed on Father Hullermann, when he resumed his duties in Bad T’lz, but the paper did not say what restrictions were imposed only engage with tourists? Isn’t this even more dangerous in a way? How is this and any other pastoral restriction monitored and enforced and what is the penalty to the priest should he not follow orders?
Richard Baldwin Cook, Maryland

A.The Munich prosecutor’s office, which holds onto case files for Ebersberg, where the district court convicted him, and Grafing, where the abuse took place, says it has not been able to find the file, which predates their computerized system. Because Father Hullermann appears to have served his sentence of five years probation without another conviction, the record may already have been expunged. Germany has strong data-privacy laws, a reaction to the abuse of personal records under Nazism that can make it hard to get such information. The church did not say who paid the fine.

The nature of Father Hullermann’s position in the spa town of Bad T’lz is a little complicated. He technically was not part of the normal church hierarchy there, under Rupert Frania, the priest in charge of the congregation. His job was to work with tourists, who from what I saw were predominantly senior citizens. Father Frania, who said he had no knowledge of the sexual-abuse conviction, asked Father Hullermann to help out along the way, including last summer at an outdoor service for children and their parents. During the regular mass he held for tourists on Sundays, Father Hullermann would also work with altar boys, though Father Frania said he would never have been alone with them.

The penalty for not following orders is apparently suspension, as that is what the archdiocese did yesterday in response to reports that Father Hullermann was still working with children.

Q.What is the law in Germany regarding pedophilia? And what is the attitude among the general public in other parts of Europe about the German scandal? I understand that in some European countries the age of consent is as low as twelve and that there was little sympathy for American victims of sexual abuse by priests, perhaps because the United States has a reputation for prudishness.
L Weaver, Northport, Ala.

A.Legally it refers to those under 14 years old. I don’t know what people outside of Germany are saying, though victims are coming forward in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Within Germany, this is taken very seriously and there has been no attempt to justify it or play it down as consenting sex. The broader scandal in Germany first started with revelations of abuse at Berlin schools. Many of the charges have come from former students of church-run boarding schools.

Source: New York Times