ROME — A cleric who sexually abuses a child and a bishop or religious superior who covers up that abuse are personally morally at fault, but the Catholic Church as an institution is not, said Cardinal Julián Herranz, retired president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
In a letter published on the front page of the Vatican newspaper, the 91-year-old cardinal said that “the errors, sins and sometimes even crimes of her members, including senior members of the hierarchy” cannot be allowed to “cast doubt on the credibility of the church and the salvific value of her mission and her magisterium.”
Herranz’s letter was published June 8, four days after German Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, 67, announced he had submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. Marx said he took such action because he believed bishops must begin to accept responsibility for the institutional failures of the church in handling the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
But Herranz argued that claiming an institutional moral culpability was a mistake.
“It is not a matter of protecting a ‘narcissistic’ image of the power and worldly prestige of a church that defends itself by forgetting humility,” he said, “but of reaffirming the divinity of its origin, the sanctity of the sacraments it offers and the perennial relevance and credibility of the Christian message of salvation.”
Confusing “the relative personal and institutional responsibilities” for the crime of sexual abuse, he said, “risks undermining public opinion and, perhaps in the consciences of the faithful, also the credibility of the church and her Gospel message.”
Herranz said that when a bishop criminally mishandles an abuse allegation or even simply makes a mistake, “the shame of the faithful and sometimes even the economic responsibility may fall on the entirety of the relevant ecclesiastical entity, but this cannot lead one to deny or cast doubt on the juridical legitimacy and moral goodness of the institutional aims of the diocese.”
“While being particularly painful for the community of the faithful,” he said, the crimes and the sins of abuse and cover-up are personal, not institutional.