The Vatican Rethinks Laws on Abuse

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Jemal Countess / WireImage

Cardinal William Joseph Levada speaks at the offices of Time Magazine on April 18.

Cardinal William Levada, a high-ranking Vatican official whom Pope Benedict XVI hand-picked to succeed him in his old job as head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, offered early signs on Friday that the Vatican will change its internal, or canon, laws concerning the church's response to sexual abuse allegations — a matter that has become the main topic of the Pope's American visit. The changes would follow adjustments made some time ago involving the church's statute of limitations with regard to some particularly egregious offenses. The Cardinal suggested that laws meriting amendment may involve statutes of limitations regarding abuse cases. He gave his comments to reporters at a lunch given in his honor by Time Magazine.

Asked whether the Vatican should consider such changes to canon laws, Levada said, "It's possible. There are some things under consideration that I'm not able to say."

The American-born Cardinal, who was Archbishop of San Francisco before Benedict brought him to Rome, said that there have already been some abuse cases in which the Vatican had "made exceptions" to canon laws — cases in which victims may not have spoken up until years later. "We found that many of the cases go back over quite a number of years, and [victims] don't feel personally able to come forward until they reach a certain level of maturity. Some canon norms are like statutes of limitations, and if the case warrants...we've been able to make exceptions." He said that those cases were ones in which "strong measures needed to be taken, even dismissal from the priesthood."

Levada's comments flowed out of a discussion initiated by this reporter's question regarding the Pope: having been so forthcoming about the abuse scandal during this trip, would he address one of its more disturbing aspects, by sanctoning supervisors and even bishops who had "aided and abetted" the crimes? Levada responded that cases would have to be judged individually: "I would want to see the situations that we'd be talking about," he said. "I personally do not accept that there is a broad base of bishops who are guilty of 'aiding and abetting' pedophiles."

Levada said, however, that bishops have admitted to him "that if they had known then what they know now they would have acted differently, but many bishops acted on the basis of psychological reports that were...not really on top of the various aspects of this" — a likely reference to the then little-known recidivism rates of offenders. As Friday's luncheon ended, Levada made his comments about changes in the canon laws.

David Cloughessy, national director of the victim's organization SNAP (for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), has been skeptical of any substantive change based on the Pope's admission of shame over the scandal, or his meeting with several victims. Levada's comments, says Cloughessy, were "a step beyond 'I feel badly about it' and a step below actually taking action."