Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Top Canonist Rebuts BBC Documentary Charges

The former top canon-law official for the Vatican has answered the charges made in a controversial BBC documentary, denying that the Vatican has sought to cover up evidence of sexual abuse by priests.

In an interview with the Italian socialist newspaper Repubblica, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Cardinal Julian Herranz, said it was false that the Holy See hides or protects priests guilty of abuse or sexual misconduct, and that instead abusive priests receive "very serious punishments" of an ecclesial nature that pose no detriment to civil proceedings.

The interview focused on the BBC documentary "Sexual Crimes and the Vatican," which was supposedly based on a 1962 memo from the office that is now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The document reaffirmed the inviolability of the seal of confession, but the BBC film said that it was intended to "protect and hide" abusive priests.

Cardinal Herranz told Repubblica that canonical legislation includes "very harsh penalties, the maximum that can be inflicted upon a priest."

The publication also places "the well-being of children… at the very heart of the Church, just as it was at the heart of Jesus Christ."

The cardinal explained that the document upon which the British documentary was based, the 1962 Vatican instruction Crimen Sollicitationes, not only was not intended to shield possible abusers from canonical penalties, but that it must be interpreted in light of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which "considers these kinds of acts as very serious offenses and gives precise indications on procedures and penalties."

Cardinal Herranz explained that faced with a possible case of abuse, the bishop has the duty to open an immediate investigation with three main objectives: "preventing scandal, safeguarding the freedom of the witnesses, and guaranteeing that justice is done."

The process could lead to the suspension of the priest, including his complete removal from the clerical state, without prejudicing any civil proceedings that may be initiated.

Cardinal Herranz denounced the "dishonest intentions" of the documentary, which attempted to connect Pope Benedict XVI with the 1962 Vatican document, by noting that the Pontiff is the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Although the current Pope did eventually become head of the office that released the 1962 document, Cardinal Herranz noted, "in 1962, he was merely a priest."

According to the Spanish prelate, the BBC report, which will soon be aired in Italy on the RAI network, "aims to sully the face of the Church and smear the Catholic priesthood."

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