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Tracking the Papal Paper Trail on Sex Abuse

Earlier this month, the Vatican denounced what it viewed as a campaign against the pope:

"It's rather clear that in recent days there have been people who have searched -- with notable tenacity in Regensberg and Munich -- for elements to personally involve the Holy Father in the question of the abuses," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio. "To any objective observer, it's clear that these attempts have failed."

Observers, in addition to taking in the Vatican's statement, may want to take a look at what documents are out there, especially since documents -- more than statements, accusations or denials -- have historically proven useful for revealing the awareness of abuses up the institutional hierarchy. So we've compiled a list of documents that have so far been cited in reporting on ties between Cardinal Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- on the subject of sexual abuse.

  • A letter copied to Cardinal Ratzinger, Jan. 20, 1980: Five days after Ratzinger approved the transfer and treatment of a child-molesting priest, Ratzinger's deputy copied him on a memo saying that the same priest would resume pastoral work as of the next month, The New York Times reported last week. The Vatican issued a statement in response, maintaining that the pope did not know about the priest's reassignment to pastoral work, and claiming that the Times report contained "no new information." The response did not mention the memo -- the existence of which has been confirmed by two church officials, according to the Times.
  • Letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, July 17, 1996: The Archdiocese of Milwaukee wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger to inform him that two priests had been accused of sexually abusing children during confession.
  • Letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, Jan. 12, 1998: A priest found to have molested more than 100 deaf children in Wisconsin wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger asking him to intervene in proceedings by the Diocese of Superior in Wisconsin, which was moving to have him defrocked.
  • Letter from Ratzinger's secretary, April 6, 1998: Ratzinger's secretary encourages the Superior Diocese to use "pastoral measures" in the case of the priest who molested deaf children, citing his old age and how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. The priest, Father Murphy, was never disciplined by the church's internal system of justice, reports the Times.
  • Letter by Cardinal Ratzinger, May 18, 2001: As a cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith -- the enforcement body that decides penalties for such offenses as sexual abuse of minors -- Ratzinger wrote a letter to Catholic bishops around the world that ordered them to keep sexual abuse allegations "subject to the pontifical secret." (Original Latin on the Vatican Web site.) This 2001 letter builds on the instructions set in a 1962 letter on "Crimen Sollicitationis," or the crime of sexual solicitations by priests during confession. The 1962 letter calls for all parties in such abuse situations to be bound "by a perpetual silence ... under the penalty of excommunication." Critics, including Germany's justice minister, have cited both letters as evidence of the Vatican's "wall of silence," but the Vatican's spokesman said in a statement that the church doctrine does not prohibit the reporting of sexual abuse to civil authorities.

An op-ed in The Times last weekend argues that since 2001, Pope Benedict's record on handling sexual abuse in the church has undergone a "conversion" and improved. John L. Allen Jr., writer of the op-ed and author of a book on Benedict, cites the pope's actions -- his visit to American and Australian victims of abusive clergy as well as his letter to the Irish church -- as evidence of such a conversion.

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