Fresh Controversies Reach Vatican

Article excerpt

ROME * By meeting with eight victims of sex abuse in Malta on April 18, Pope Benedict XVI may have hoped to open a new chapter in his response to the crisis. Even as that session took place, however, fresh controversy was brewing on two fronts:

* In Spain, a defiant Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, now 81 and retired as the Vatican's top official for clergy, insisted that he had the approval of Pope John Paul II when he sent a letter to a French bishop in 2001 applauding him for not reporting an abuser priest to the police. The letter, coupled with Castrillon's brash defense, seemed to cast doubt on a recent set of Vatican guidelines indicating that cooperation with the police and other civil authorities in sex abuse cases is official church policy.

* In Germany, a report in Der Spiegel newsmagazine, citing anonymous sources, claimed that an official in the Munich archdiocese who initially claimed that he, and not then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had allowed an abuser priest back into ministry in the early 1980s, is now telling friends that he felt pressure to act as a "scapegoat" for the pope.

The Castrillon letter dates from September 2001, at a time when Castrillon was still prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy. It's addressed to Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux, France, who was sentenced by a French court to three months in prison in 2001, though that term was suspended, for failing to denounce Fr. Rene Bissey, convicted in October 2000" for sexual abuse of 11 minor boys between 1989 and 1996.

"I rejoice to have a colleague in the episcopate that, in the eyes of history and all the other bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his sons and priests," Castrillon wrote.

On'April 15, a Vatican statement attempted to distance Benedict from Castrillon's letter. Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, said the letter offers "another confirmation of how timely was the unification of the treatment of cases of sexual abuse of minors on the part of members of the clergy under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."

That congregation was led by Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, who is credited with taking a more aggressive approach to sex abuse cases. In effect, Lombardi's suggestion was that Castrillon's letter illustrated the problems that Ratzinger faced in kick-starting the Vatican into action.

On April 16, however, the 81-year-old Castrillon, a Colombian, insisted that he had shown the letter in advance to John Paul II, and that the late pope had authorized him not only to send it but to eventually post it on the Internet.

During a conference at a Catholic university in Murcia, Spain, Castrillon said that the issue was protecting the seal of the confessional. French law recognizes the seal of the confessional as part of a protected category of "professional secrets," but makes an exception for crimes committed against minors.

Yet the text of Castrillon's 2001 letter seems to make a broader point, suggesting that denouncing priests to civil authorities is incompatible with a bishop's "paternal" bond with his priests. …