Is Pope Signaling Change in Abuse Policy? In his first visit to the U.S., Pope Benedict XVI has addressed the issue of clergy sex abuse several times. Canonical law expert Nicholas Cafardi says he sees signs that the pope may be weighing changes to church law that will make it easier to deal with the abuse problem.
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Is Pope Signaling Change in Abuse Policy?

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Is Pope Signaling Change in Abuse Policy?

Is Pope Signaling Change in Abuse Policy?

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Pope Benedict XVI is in New York City today. His first official visit at the United States has so far included a speech at the United Nations, celebrating mass for nearly 50,000 people in Washington, D.C.'s baseball stadium, and a surprise meeting with victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

The pope expressed regret for the abuse scandals, and he also touched on topics like human rights abuses and war. In New York, the Pope will visit Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan and he will say mass tomorrow in Yankee Stadium.

Nicolas Cafardi is Dean Emeritus at the Duquesne School of Law, where he specializes in canon law. He joins us now from member station WDUQ in Pittsburgh. Thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. NICOLAS CAFARDI (Dean Emeritus, Canon Law, Duquesne School of Law): Good to be here.

SIMON: And what are the moments that you noted as being most significant in the pope's visit, Dean Cafardi?

Prof. CAFARDI: Well, I think it actually started on the plane ride over, when he very forthrightly addressed the topic of the sexual abuse of children by the church's ministers. That seems to have been a decision by him to make that a theme of this visit because he's come back to that idea many times since then.

I think he's signaling that there is going to be a change in the church's law coming to deal with this problem. Right now, the United States has a canon law which does effectively deal with the problem. But we have to realize this is not a problem which is unique to the American priesthood. This is a problem which has had repercussions across the Catholic world and in many other countries.

SIMON: Now, refresh my recollection as to what applies under canon law here now because it's an area that, I guess, was always assumed to be unstated?

Prof. CAFARDI: Well, certainly the code of canon law says that it is a canonical crime for a priest to abuse children and that the penalty for that can be dismissal from the priesthood. And provisions like that have been in the church as law for a millennium at least and actually longer.

The problem is that that particular part of the law was not followed. And one of the reasons why they didn't is because the canonical criminal system requires, like any crime in any legal system, that there be sufficient proofs, that there be a trial and, again, to protect the rights of the accused. And that canonical system was seen by many bishops and people who were advising them as being just too complicated to use.

SIMON: I wonder, Dean, what about the responsibility of the bishops who have either ignored the problem or just essentially moved accused priests from one mission to another and never really addressing it?

Prof. CAFARDI: Interestingly enough, the code of canon law says that if you have an ecclesiastical office and you abuse it and harm results to another, that itself is a crime. I think you could make an argument that bishops who ignored what we all knew by the early 90s that these people could not be reassigned even after treatment. And when those priests who were allowed to remain in active ministry went on to harm other children, at that point the bishops were culpable of a canonical crime of abuse of ecclesiastical office.

Now, ask me if any bishop was ever brought up on those charges and the answer is no.

SIMON: This is a pope who is at least so far not figured to be the charismatic figure certainly that his predecessor was, but I wonder if he's not beginning to sort of establish his own signature in history with meetings like this.

Prof. CAFARDI: I think he is. You know, very often it's the plotters that get things done. And that's why I'm hoping that Pope Benedict will realize that it is not enough to say, as he did, who's guilty of pedophilia cannot be a priest. There must be the institutional changes, the changes in the law, that make sure that that will be the case.

SIMON: Nicolas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne School of Law. Thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. CAFARDI: You're welcome.

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