Monsignor Scicluna, in October 2002, you were appointed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to investigate allegations of clerical child sex abuse. Why were you chosen?
I was no newcomer to the Roman Curia. After studying civil and canon law, I began working in 1996 at the Roman Catholic Church’s highest court, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. In one of the positions I held there, I served as secretary of a commission that produced the draft of an important document regarding the nullity-of-marriage process.
This document was released by the Holy See in 2002 under the title of “Dignitas connubii.” While I was working as secretary of this commission, I attracted the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
What was someone versed in canon law doing in the congregation of faith, and as a “promotor iustitiae” at that?
The congregation was never just an administrative body. It was also a tribunal. It is charged with investigating the most serious crimes defined by canon law, matters that include the breach of the seal of the confessional and the sacramental absolution of accomplices in sexual misconduct. In such cases, a prosecutor known as the promoter of justice, “promotor iustitiae,” is appointed. This position had been vacant since 1995 and was filled in 2002.
In reaction to the child abuse scandal in the United States, which triggered a massive outcry around the world at the time?
Not directly. In April 2001, Pope John Paul II expanded the scope of the congregation’s authority to include “sexual abuse.” At that point, the church needed a lawyer who would investigate the material full time.
For this reason, the church gave me the position in the congregation on a trial basis in January 2002 and assigned me to investigate a special abuse case that had been gathering dust for several years because there were no personnel to look into it.
Afterward, I was appointed to the position of promotor iustitiae following negotiations between Cardinal Pompedda, the head of the Signatura, and Cardinal Ratzinger.
Who and what was the driving force behind the reassignment of authority in the Vatican? Cardinal Ratzinger?
In 1997, the congregation set up a commission to update procedures in line with the 1983 Code of Canon Law. At the same time it was asked to investigate allegations made against the founder of the “Legion of Christ,” Father Marcial Maciel Degollado of Mexico.
Several former members of this religious order had raised credible allegations that Maciel, in connection with the abuse of minors, had committed crimes that had always fallen into realm of the congregation’s authority, particularly the absolution of accomplices. Thus, the congregation learned about the issue of sexual abuse indirectly through the application of its own authority.
Why was this indirect approach required?
One problem was that the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983 did not reserve competence on sexual abuse cases to Rome but rather, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, left these cases in the hands of the individual bishops. There was no requirement to report these cases to Rome.
Sexual abuse was not a criminal offense before 1983?
Of course, it was. Several sets of instructions regarding procedures for handling abuse cases were based on the 1917 Code of Canon Law. But they were not amended or updated after 1983. Cardinal Ratzinger recognized this problem at an early stage.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he approached the Signatura in the early 1990s because it, as the supreme tribunal, was charged with assigning the areas of authority within the Roman Curia.
Ratzinger asked for clarification about who within the church should assume responsibility for investigating these crimes:the Congregation for the Clergy or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Based on what we know, the Signatura’s commission did not get very far …
The commission was not well organized and, much to Cardinal Ratzinger’s dismay, went about its work in a fairly chaotic manner. It took three years to prepare a draft of new procedural guidelines. In April 2001, John Paul II approved these regulations in the form of a Motu proprio under the title of “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela” (SST). But sexual abuse was added to the list of criminal offenses only at the end of consultations.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was assigned the responsibility of handling these cases at the insistence of Ratzinger’s staff and a commission of church legal experts. One of the reasons for this was that the Congregation for the Clergy, which makes administrative decisions regarding clergy discipline, was not a tribunal and as such could not and cannot conduct a criminal trial as would be the case with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Before 2001, did Rome hear virtually nothing about abuse cases or, if so, did it hear about them by chance or through indirect information?
In the 1990s, it appeared that the issue of sexual abuse was confined to Canada and the United States. So many cases had been reported there since the 1980s that Cardinal Sodano, the Secretary of State, acted with the Pope’s consent and empowered the American bishops on April 25, 1994, to examine every case of abuse in which the victim was at least 18 years old.
Eighteen years old and not 16?
Yes, the canon law crime of sexual abuse of a minor was initially extended to minors under 18 for the United States only. Today, the same law applies in the Universal Church. In addition, procedural guidelines were issued for the first time. Under these rules, cases against members of the clergy were to be conducted on the level of the respective diocese.
The Sacred Roman Rota, the church’s highest appellate court, was assigned the responsibility for the appeals filed in these cases. As you see, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had nothing to do with the entire process in the mid-1990s.
It has been reported that a major dispute broke out among cardinals in the late 1990s over the question of whether an investigation of the legion’s founder should be initiated. Powerful cardinals stood up for Maciel Degollado. But Ratzinger won out in the end.
The minutes of the meetings give no indication of how the battle lines were drawn at the time. The cardinals who were there at the time could know more.
What did you know about clerical sexual abuse before you were assigned these cases in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
Not much. When I was assigned the position of examining abuse cases in the mid-1990s in the Signatura, I first had to learn the complete language.
Why in the Signatura?
The Signatura reviews decisions of the other Dicastries of the Holy See from the procedural point of view. One of my first cases concerning sexual abuse of minors involved an American priest who had abused children and young people in a church and, together with two other priests, had formed a sort of pedophile ring.
He was reported by some of his victims and his bishop removed him from ministry. The priest made recourse to the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome to challenge the decision of his bishop. The priest was influential and well liked.
He had set up his own travel agencies and organized pilgrimages. He preferred to take his victims with him on cruise ships. The Congregation for the Clergy rejected his challenge. The priest then challenged this decision before the Signatura. We also upheld the bishop’s decision.
Was there no requirement to report to Rome until 2001?
No. For this reason, my work in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith began with a shock. The sheer number of cases reported to Rome under the new rules of the SST was something like a tsunami. In 2003, 800 cases were reported – new and old ones. In 2004, an additional 700 were reported – from the United States alone. The rest of the world, including Germany, was still dormant. While I held the position, we had 4,000 cases.
A handful of canon lawyers under the promotor iustitiae were supposed to handle thousands of cases all of a sudden?
After a few months, I knew that we would drown in this tsunami. The new rules were like a straitjacket. I went to Cardinal Ratzinger and told him: ,We cannot handle this mountain of cases with a complex set of procedures that make it possible to hold only three or four trials a year.
We are getting two to three new cases a day!` Fortunately, Cardinal Ratzinger had the absolute trust of Pope John Paul II. He always got what he requested. I told him: ,Eminence, you must go to the Pope and ask him to give us special authority to quickly handle the very clear cases in an administrative procedure and to not have to conduct a regular court proceeding as required by the motu proprio in every case.`
And that is what happened. In 2003, a special authorization was issued that enabled a criminal proceeding to be done administratively. These special authorizations are now part of the revised version of the special law.
All of a sudden, the Vatican’s learning curve shot upward – why?
The public pressure, exerted in particular by the media, was very important. But we were also really stung by the humiliation and the loss of standing among the public that the church was experiencing. We understood at the time that Rome could make only one response to the scandals: We would have to do our job, and do it as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
Speed generally has little to do with thoroughness.
Justice certainly takes time. But this cannot come at the expense of the victims who are waiting for a response to their reports. The families and parishes also had to be informed about what happened. Priests were waiting to receive a final decision about their fates, and the bishops wanted to know where they stood with this or that priest. For this reason, we decided to act as a supervisory body. We sent as many cases as possible to the dioceses for a decision.
In the fall of 2002, bishops in Germany approved guidelines for handling sex-abuse cases. In the years that followed, neither they nor the public seemed to be too concerned about the issue. At the time, many thought it was just an American problem. How is the problem perceived in the church today?
Although for the first years of our work we were faced with a considerable number of cases from the United States, we could also see that the problem was not an “American problem”. Reports of cases started coming from all over the world, albeit in smaller numbers. We also had many problems on this side of the Atlantic, including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Poland and Malta.
After being elected Pope, Benedict XVI himself was accused of acting improperly in connection with the abuse cases.
Benedict XVI was Archbishop of Munich and Freising at a time when pedophilia was viewed in a different light from the way it is today. I have seen many documents from the 1970s and 1980s containing reports from psychiatrists who said the offender had been completely healed and who made an unqualified positive prognosis.
Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the few bishops who were thoughtful enough to seek professional guidance that they also could rely on. Unfortunately, some of the offenders committed more crimes in spite of the prognoses. Today, professionals think someone is crazy or irresponsible if he or she gives a clean bill of health to a person who has molested children. The risk factor is never zero.
Today, people still believe that there is a connection between celibacy and sexual abuse. What do you know?
I have seen 4,000 cases in the last 10 years. In each case, celibate men were the offenders – I would not have been looking at them otherwise. But it would be absurd to conclude that the sole cause is a connection between celibacy and abuse.
We have information about abuse occurring in churches where the clergy members are married. The question that we are asking ourselves is a much different one: Why didn’t celibacy act as an extra shield. A celibate individual should have learned to control his sexual desires. For this reason, we are talking about a problem in priestly training.
Michael Kafka, a highly respected American researcher at the Harvard Medical School, has pointed out that an above-average number of homosexuals were found among the Catholic clergy members who molested children and young people. Do you agree?
As a lawyer, I am not an expert about how homosexual tendencies arise. There are no statistics showing how many molesters were homosexuals and how many were heterosexual or even bisexual.
But we do know that, with the exception of Africa, where the majority of victims are young girls and women, the molesters in cases referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith generally sought out boys between the ages of 14 to 18. Psychologists must explain why this was the case.
What has the Church learned from the molestation scandals of recent decades?
The first lesson is that the things that you have correctly observed should be formulated and discussed. The first reaction is not to speak about a problem. Rather, it is shock and the subsequent silence and the inability to do anything at all because the shock is too much. On the other hand, formulating priorities is the first step toward breaking the shock’s grip on you.
The top priority is to empower churches, families, groups, parishes and even dioceses. All must learn to avoid putting blind faith in members of the clergy- Rather, they must view them – expressed in Biblical terms – as stewards of something that God has entrusted to them and who will be held accountable for their deeds. Priests, bishops, cardinals and even the Pope must move closer to their flock.
They are people, just as you and I are, with their own strengths and weaknesses. We, the clergy, must earn people’s trust, day after day. This is just what the Gospel says. In Luke, we are told that of stewards to whom much has been given, much is expected in return. Jesus told this to Peter of all people.
How should future priests learn what it means to be held accountable?
Through education. We must train leaders, just as we must strengthen communities. We must also understand how precious a child’s innocence is. This must be in the Catholic DNA. But because you cannot completely stop abuse, we must put families, groups and churches in a position of being able to recognize the signs of molestation.
They must learn to not look away. Instead, they must respond well and at an early stage, and bring the truth to light. This is no easy task. Sometimes, the truth is so shocking that we fear it and do not want to discuss it. But the truth will set us free. This is what Jesus stands for. If we conceal and cover up things, we will never be free and children of the light. We must be a gleaming example of what the business world calls “best practice.” We must be part of the solution and not of the problem.
Do you think that all members of the Curia and the College of Cardinals share your view, which was also the view of Pope Benedict?
Pope Benedict was completely clear about this issue. You just have to re-member what the Pope said in his programmatic Christmas message in December 2010. He quoted a vision of Saint Hildegard von Bingen in which the face of the church is covered with dust and her dress is torn – all because of the priests’ sins. But it would be unusual if there were no other views within the Church.
If you compare the Church to a ship, then we will find many sailors on board, but just one captain. He sets the course. In Rome, my work will be assessed differently, depending on who is involved. Some will say: ,You must do a better job.’ Others will say: ,The best approach is to do absolutely nothing at all.’ Until he resigned, Pope Benedict stuck to his line. We will see what will happen – to use the same metaphor – when one of the sailors becomes Pope.
Could the Vatican ease or back off the hard line it has taken toward molestation?
I think that is out of the question. The Church’s approach to the issue of sexual abuse does not depend on who is the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or of the Congregation for the Clergy or even who the Pope is.
The key is the attention of families, groups and churches. The empowerment of these groups is not incompatible with the hierarchal structure of the church. The innocence of “the little ones” is a much more precious value. We want to be the Church of Jesus Christ. The priorities were laid down in the Gospel a long time ago.
What lesson has the church learned from the molestation scandal that it can apply to the training of future priests?
I would say nothing more than that which was spelled out by Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Constitution on priestly formation “Pastores dabo vobis”: A key requirement is the human maturity of the future priest. This is not only a question of spirituality or theology, but rather a life-long learning process, to which the humanities have contributed much.
In many countries, the scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church have in-creased people’s realization that sexual abuse of children occurs in many places and is done by all types of people – from fathers to child molesters who, as tourists, fly from Europe or America to Asia and Africa. Can the Catholic Church learn from its own history and become the children’s advocate?
I understand why the sins of the Catholic Church make headlines. But I consider this to be a sign of hope as well. This means that the world continues to hope that the Catholic clergy has not lost faith in the ideal in which one individual devotes his life to serving others. If we no longer would or want to measure ourselves against our calling, then we would not be needed, and our sins would no longer make headlines.
But we should not just attract attention when something goes wrong. We should also get it when we do something well, too. To the extent that the Catholic Church applied “best practices” everywhere, it could act as a role model for ways to deal with criminals in other contexts. Youth groups, sports clubs, schools and other organizations could then look up to the Church a guide.
In Munich, a “Center for Child Protection” was set up more than a year ago. It develops online learning models designed to make church groups worldwide aware of the issue and to teach correct forms of behavior. What do you think of this?
The Munich project is a small, but important and promising piece of the huge puzzle. The initiative is just now getting off the ground. But my hope is that its impact will extend far beyond the Catholic Church. We must share our painful experience and our expertise with all people of good will.
@Susanne Virot Abba Poenen did not think of a sin like harming children!
Gabi Heintz (Kolma_Puschi) - 07.03.2013, 01:02 Uhr