By shifting power to canonical standards, the Vatican has unwittingly invited scrutiny of the church's core crisis: its lack of oversight capacity. Democracy is not holy, but canon law has nothing equivalent to independent prosecutors or watchdogs, like the General Accounting Office, which investigates the government for Congress. An egregious example of this deficiency in church governance happened at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The body has historically monitored theologians.
In 1998, eight former seminarians of the Legion of Christ, a religious order admired by Pope John Paul II, accused the director, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, of sexually abusing them in Spain and Rome in the 1950s and '60s. The men tried for years to reach the pope, but he never responded to their letters.
The accusers, a Spanish priest and seven Mexican laymen, followed the Code of Canon Law to the letter, using experienced canon lawyers from Mexico City and the Vatican. They accused Maciel of forgiving their "sins" in confession. Abuse of the sacrament of penance is one of the most serious delicts, or crimes, in the canonical code, punishable by excommunication. Ratzinger allowed no testimony and aborted the proceeding in 1999. Last spring, when Brian Ross of ABC-TV's "20/20" approached the cardinal in front of his office in Rome, seeking comment on the case, Ratzinger slapped him on the wrist and refused to talk.
Such secretive tribunals are a medieval system prone to abuse, as Father John Bambrick learned. As a teenager, he was allegedly abused by Father Anthony Eremito. Emboldened by the survivors' movement, Bambrick learned that Eremito was a hospital chaplain in Texas and complained to Cardinal Edward Egan of the New York archdiocese, where Eremito had ministered for many years. Eremito resigned and was suspended from the active priesthood.
Not to be outdone, Eremito turned to Msgr. William Varvaro, a former president of the Canon Law Society of America and a member of the papal staff. Varvaro filed a canonical grievance against the young priest for violating Eremito's right to privacy. "Surreally, I was charged under 1717, the same canon used against perpetrators," said Bambrick. Although Bambrick's bishop cleared him after a secret investigation, Egan's lay review board will not allow the young priest to testify against the older priest who abused him and others.