Pope Benedict is still “in the dock” over clerical sexual abuse as far as leading media are concerned.

“Evidence for the defence” was presented last week showing that the Pope asked for quicker and simpler procedures to discipline priests as far back as 1988 when he was head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office.

The new documentation, released online Wednesday by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, appeared to defend the pope against claims that as head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office he was part of a culture of inaction and delay that failed to swiftly discipline priests who had abused minors. The New York Times reported:

The article cited in particular a 1988 letter that the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sent to the Vatican calling for “a swifter and simplified” procedure for disciplining priests “found guilty of grave and scandalous conduct.”

In the letter, he added that such procedures “ought in some cases, for the good of the faithful, to take precedence over the request for dispensation from priestly obligations, which, by its nature, involves a ‘grace’ in favor of the petitioner.”

In reply, his interlocutor suggested that such reforms might infringe on a priest’s ability to defend himself against false accusations, and the Vatican did not immediately adopt the cardinal’s request.

Also last week there were hints of “evidence for the prosecution” in coverage of an official report on the handling of sexual abuse cases in Germany’s Munich archdiocese. Media accounts did not fail to point out that this was the diocese once presided over by Pope Benedict, or that one abusive priest returned to ministry there during that time.

However, the report on sexual abuse by a church-appointed law firm “disclosed no new bombshells” about Archbishop Ratzinger’s tenure (1977 to 1982), said the Wall Street Journal.

The report, by Munich attorney Marion Westpfahl, covers a 64-year period, from1945 to 2009, and presents “a harsh assessment” of the archdiocese’s handling of abuse cases. It is not clear from the WSJ story, though, exactly what the term “abuse” covered.

In total, the audit found evidence that 159 priests from 1945 to 2009 were involved in some sort of abuse, while 26 of them were convicted specifically of sexual abuse. The report added that investigators found evidence that an additional 17 priests also committed sexual abuse.

In addition, investigators found evidence 15 deacons and 96 religion teachers also committed abuse, though only two were ever convicted of sexual abuse, according to the report.

At a news conference to present the report, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the current archbishop of Munich, called it an effort by the church to learn from its “awful mistakes and transgressions of the past” and asked for forgiveness for “the actions of members of the church.”

There is evidently nothing in this audit to incriminate the Pope.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet