25 Nov '06 20:58>2 edits
Barely a week after Cardinal Ratziner became Pope Benedict XVI, he faced claims of obstructing justice after it emerged he issued an order ensuring the Church’s own investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret. The order was made in a confidential letter which was sent to every Catholic bishop in May 2001.
It asserted the Church’s right to hold inquiries behind closed doors and keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood.
The letter, ‘concerning very grave sins’, was sent from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that was overseen by Ratzinger.
It spelt out to bishops the Church’s position on a number of matters including sexual abuse by a cleric ‘with a minor below the age of 18 years’.
Ratzinger’s letter stated that the Church can claim jurisdiction in cases where abuse has been ‘perpetrated with a minor by a cleric’.
The letter states that the Church’s jurisdiction ‘begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age’ and lasts for 10 years.
It ordered that ‘preliminary investigations’ into any claims of abuse should be sent to Ratzinger’s office, which had the option of referring them back to private tribunals in which the ‘functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests’.
“Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,” Ratzinger’s letter concluded.
Breaching the pontifical secret at any time while the 10-year jurisdiction order is operating still carries penalties, including excommunication.
The letter is referred to in documents relating to a lawsuit filed earlier this year against a church in Texas on behalf of two alleged abuse victims.
By sending the letter, lawyers acting for the alleged victims claim the Pope, as cardinal, conspired to obstruct justice.
Ratzinger was originally named as a defendant in the case but, when he became Pope Benedict he succeeded, as Vatican head of state, in being granted immunity from being sued in the US.