TORONTO, Canada — It has become shockingly clear that protecting the church from scandal was the top priority for many Roman Catholic bishops when faced with priests who sexually abused children.
The impression this has created — church officials more concerned with the interests of the church than the wellbeing of children — has added to the outrage felt in the growing list of countries where sex abuse scandals have been made public.
Of the many examples, few have been as glaring as one that came to light last week, when a letter written by a Canadian bishop was submitted as evidence in a lawsuit by a sex abuse victim against the Diocese of Pembroke, in the eastern part of Ontario.
The letter makes clear that avoiding scandal was a key concern of the late Bishop Joseph Windle when writing to the Vatican about a pedophile priest in 1993. Windle was preoccupied with ensuring there was, as he put it, “little or no danger of any scandal ever emerging.”
The pedophile priest — the now-defrocked Monsignor Bernard Prince — was convicted in 2008 of sexually molesting 13 young boys between 1964 and 1984. Most of the incidents occurred in the Pembroke area of eastern Ontario. Prince is now serving a four-year prison sentence in Canada.
He was promoted to a top Vatican job overseeing missionary groups in 1991 — a year after allegations that he abused a boy were brought to the Diocese’s attention. In his letter two years later to the papal nuncio in Ottawa — the Vatican’s ambassador — Windle wrote that another four children had complained of sexual abuse by Prince.
Yet, Windle told the Vatican’s ambassador that he agreed with Prince’s move to Rome because “it would remove him from the Canadian scene.” Windle noted he also told Vatican Archbishop Jose Sanchez, now a cardinal, about the sex abuse allegations before Prince got the Rome posting.
A “redeeming factor,” Windle wrote, is that the family of one victim is of Polish background, “and their respect for the priesthood and the Church has made them refrain from making these allegations public or laying a criminal charge against a priest.
“Had this happened elsewhere, there would be every danger that charges would have been laid long ago with all the resultant scandal,” Windle added.
A year before the letter was written, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a report insisting that allegations of child sex abuse be reported to police. Yet Windle names a handful of Canadian bishops in his letter who knew about the allegations against Prince and apparently did not do so.
Prince retired from his Vatican job, head of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith, in 2004 — 13 years after church and Vatican officials were told of sex abuse allegations. He was arrested in 2006, after victims went directly to police.
Pope Benedict XVI, when he enforced church doctrine as Cardinal Ratzinger, helped set the tone when he resisted calls to defrock a pedophile priests in California, insisting he had to consider “the good of the universal church.”
A leading canon law expert said the church’s worry about the scandal sex abuse allegations will cause — which often leads to their cover up — reflects a deeply rooted legal principle that governs the church.
“The principal of scandal is very important in penal canon law,” said Marco Ventura, a professor of religious law at the University of Siena, referring to the Vatican’s legal code. “Preventing scandals from taking place is crucial from all points of view. The bishop is in charge of determining how to fight against scandals which could affect the good image of the church,” he added in an interview.
Ventura describes canon law as a murky penal code that leaves punishment to the discretion of church authorities.
It places all power in the hands of bishops on matters in their diocese. When crimes occur, church law requires that bishops weigh the impact of scandal before acting, Ventura said.
In one canon law section alone — The Application of Penalties — the word scandal is used five times.
“The bishop could say, ‘In the name of scandal I act against this criminal or, in the name of scandal I do not,’” he said.
It comes down to which will better protect parishioners and the good image of the church, says Ventura, an editorial committee member of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, and the author of two books on canon law.
The bishop might decide that laying charges against a pedophile priest could help the church by showing the community it takes such matters seriously. Or, he could decide that a cover up would spare parishioners emotional turmoil and prevent competing churches from using the crimes to lure Catholics away from the fold.
Scores of examples in Ireland, Germany, the United States and Canada — to name only a few countries — indicate bishops often decided the latter was more appropriate.
“According to the logic of the [canon law] system, a bishop should be judged not according to the pressing needs of society or the interests of the victim, but he should be judged on the basis of how he protected the community of believers he is in charge of,” Ventura said, explaining a legal system he believes should be reformed.
In 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a directive stating that all bishops should send allegations of sex abuse to his office. But Ventura argued the final decision remains in the hands of bishops.
He said the pope should have the “courage” to plainly explain to Catholics the legal system that governs the church they uphold. Or, he should change canon law to reflect “a different understanding of scandal” and to limit the power of bishops.
“But limiting the power of bishops would be a historical revolution,” he said, suggesting that won’t be happening any time soon.