Anyone who witnessed the state funeral of Pope John Paul II, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, must admit some heightened awareness of the influence of the sovereign Vatican. Heads of state from around the world—from all religious affiliations—came to show their respect. The political power of the papacy was palpable. It must have been really something in the Middle Ages.
The "benefit of clergy" is the exemption from the jurisdiction of the secular courts, which in England, in the Middle Ages, was accorded to clergy. Historic laws respecting the benefit of clergy are discussed at length in Blackstone's Commentaries, if you can read olde Englifh. The concept is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia, in the vernacular. Both are interesting, especially for lawyers and priests.
The privilege of benefit of clergy was entirely abolished in England in 1827, by Statutes 7 and 8 Geo. IV, c.xxvii, sect. 6. In the colonies it had been recognized, but by Act of Congress of 30 April, 1790, it was taken away in the federal courts of the United States. Traces of it are found in some courts of different states, but it has been practically outlawed by statute or by adjudication. it is now universally obsolete in English and American law.
While absolute monarchs, democratic legislatures, and common law judges have long since abolished ancient laws recognizing that the Church alone has supreme legal authority over its clergy, some religious find the exemption is still in the Bible.
Psalms 105:13 When they went from one nation to another, from one kingdom to another people; 14 He suffered no man to do them wrong: yea, he reproved kings for their sakes; 15 Saying, Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm.
De facto, sovereign authority over alleged crimes of clergy may still exist in the most secret laws of the Church. Cardinal Law might not be above the law—just beyond the laws of the United States of America.
According to recent press reports, Pope Benedict XVI faces new claims he had 'obstructed justice' after it emerged he issued an order ensuring the church's investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret.
The letter, 'concerning very grave sins', was sent from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that once presided over the Inquisition and was overseen by Ratzinger.
It spells out to bishops the church's position on a number of matters ranging from celebrating the eucharist with a non-Catholic to sexual abuse by a cleric 'with a minor below the age of 18 years'. Ratzinger's letter states that the church can claim jurisdiction in cases where abuse has been 'perpetrated with a minor by a cleric'.
The letter states that the church's jurisdiction 'begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age' and lasts for 10 years.
It orders that 'preliminary investigations' into any claims of abuse should be sent to Ratzinger's office, which has the option of referring them back to private tribunals in which the 'functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests'.
'Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,' Ratzinger's letter concludes. Breaching the pontifical secret at any time while the 10-year jurisdiction order is operating carries penalties, including the threat of excommunication.
The Ratzinger letter was co-signed by Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone who gave an interview two years ago in which he hinted at the church's opposition to allowing outside agencies to investigate abuse claims.
'In my opinion, the demand that a bishop be obligated to contact the police in order to denounce a priest who has admitted the offence of paedophilia is unfounded,' Bertone said.
Most lawyers, today, have a hard time understanding this thinking, though it seems clear to ecclesiastical scholars. Lawyers are concerned with crime and punishment, while clergy are concerned with sin and redemption. As long as the Church views sexual abuse of children by clergy as a moral failure, a breach of the vow of chastity, even a cardinal sin, it is a matter for confession, penitence, forgiveness and absolution.