Pope Benedict responded angrily over the weekend after civil authorities in Belgium raided Church property, confiscating documents relating to allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests.
In recent months, the Vatican has stepped up its assurances that the scandal would be handled more aggressively, with the Pope himself apologizing to victims and acknowledging serious shortcomings within the Church.
But Church officials still haven’t said unequivocally that evidence of suspected sexual assaults will be turned over in all cases to civil authorities for an independent investigation.
Indeed, in his letter to Belgian officials on Sunday, Pope Benedict suggested that the Church should have “autonomy” in pursuing its own internal investigations of this kind of criminal behavior.
“On several occasions I have personally reiterated that such serious issues should be attended to by both civil and canon law, with respect for their reciprocal specificity and autonomy.”
This ambiguity is sure to inflame the Church’s critics and to raise new questions about the Vatican’s handling of the crisis.
If a priest or other church official is suspected of sexual assault — or of attempting to cover up a sexual assault — why shouldn’t the allegations and any available evidence simply be turned over to police and prosecutors?
What role should “canon law” (or for that matter, the internal rules of any faith or private organization) play in cases where someone is suspected of criminal activity?
Even if the Church hadn’t already strained its credibility on this matter, it would be extraordinary to ask for this kind of license — the permission, in effect, to self-police in potential felony cases.
Hopefully, it will turn out that this raid was unnecessary — and perhaps even undiplomatic. Church officials appear confident that no damaging evidence will be turned up.
But the Church — especially here in the U.S. — can still do itself a good turn by clarifying this important point.
Will Bishops commit to notifying police immediately, in all cases, when one of their own is accused (or suspected) of sexual assault?