Back in 2001, future Pope Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—was given sweeping authority to handle church abuse cases. But, uh, he had that power all along—and didn't use it.

The New York Times has a big story on Pope Benedict XVI and his time in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And, as you might guess, it's not particularly flattering. The charge the article levies is that Benedict was unwilling to exercise his broad authority to handle charges of sexual abuse:

The office led by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had actually been given authority over sexual abuse cases nearly 80 years earlier, in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm. But for the two decades he was in charge of that office, the future pope never asserted that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the church's credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere.

Ratzinger was named prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1983. Papal instructions from 1922 gives that office "sole responsibility for deciding cases of priests accused of particularly heinous offenses: solicitation of sex during confession, homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality." (Always nice to see homosexuality right there next to pedophilia and bestiality, isn't it? No, wait, not "nice." "Awful.") Ratzinger was aware of those instructions (which were contradicted by canon law from 1983), according to Archbishop Philip Wilson, who says he discussed them with Ratzinger's office.

But did Ratzinger make it clear that his office was the one in charge? Or do anything about sexual abuse charges in the 1980s? No, he had more important things to handle, like, you know, Latin American priests helping the poor:

As Father Gauthé was being prosecuted [for child abuse] in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed, which the cardinal saw as a Marxist-inspired distortion of church doctrine.

The problem with prosecuting sex offenders and defrocking child molesters, of course, is that it eats into the already-dropping numbers of priests (seriously). It wasn't until 2000 that Ratzinger and other Vatican officials agreed to meet with bishops, mostly from English-speaking dioceses, who were dealing with sex abuse scandals and an often-unhelpful Vatican. What did they talk about at the meeting?

Yet many at the meeting grew dismayed as, over four long days in early April 2000, they heard senior Vatican officials dismiss clergy sexual abuse as a problem confined to the English-speaking world, and emphasize the need to protect the rights of accused priests over ensuring the safety of children, according to interviews with 10 church officials who attended the meeting.

Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, then the head of the Congregation for the Clergy, set the tone, playing down sexual abuse as an unavoidable fact of life, and complaining that lawyers and the media were unfairly focused on it, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. What is more, he asked, is it not contradictory for people to be so outraged by sexual abuse when society also promotes sexual liberation?

Another Vatican participant even observed that many pedophile priests had Irish surnames, a remark that offended delegates from Ireland.

Sounds like a really fun meeting. In Ratzinger's defense, Archbishop Wilson says that the future pope seemed to "get it" and understand the situation. But that just raises the question: Why hadn't Ratzinger acted?

In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter intending to clarify the procedure for handling sex abuse cases, the cover letter, written by Cardinal Ratzinger, indicated that his office had always been the authority in those matters. So: Why not make that clear twenty years earlier, when stories of abuse began to surface?

[NYT; pic via Getty]