Published: Dec 02, 2010 9:54 PM EST
Updated: Dec 02, 2010 6:54 PM EST

VATICAN CITY (AP) - The Vatican on Thursday released documentation showing Pope Benedict XVI sought as early as 1988 to find quicker ways to permanently remove priests who raped and molested children but was rebuffed.

A 1988 letter from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger could serve as the Vatican's best defense to date that the future pope wanted to quickly remove pedophile priests but found himself stymied by church law.

In the letter, republished in Thursday's Vatican newspaper, Ratzinger complained that church law made it exceedingly difficult to remove abusers if they didn't request to be laicized voluntarily. He asked to get around the problem by finding "a quicker and simpler procedure" than a cumbersome church trial to punish those priests who "during their ministry were found guilty of grave and scandalous behavior."

He was turned down on the grounds that the priests' ability to defend themselves would be compromised.

The documentation was included in an article in L'Osservatore Romano explaining an upcoming revision of church law, which was last updated in 1983.

The article, penned by the No. 2 in the Vatican's legal office, highlighted some of the problems and loopholes of the 1983 Code of Canon Law's penal section that presumably will be addressed in the revision.

The Vatican has long sought to portray Benedict as having done more than anyone else at the Vatican to crack down on pedophile priests. But it has usually cited as his starting point a 2001 decision to have all abuse cases sent to his former office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Feb. 19, 1988 letter shows he sought changes far earlier given that his office was already hearing from bishops who were having trouble dealing with pedophiles.

Nevertheless, victims' advocates said one letter doesn't excuse decades of inaction when police, parents and parishioners should have been notified of abusive priests. They said nor does it excuse what they consider to be continued inaction by the pope in removing bishops who covered up abuse.

"Since when are public figures judged by one letter in a long, long career?" asked Joelle Casteix of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Since when do words on paper count more than actual behavior?"

As the clerical abuse scandal erupted earlier this year, Benedict was mired by accusations that as prefect of the congregation, he repeatedly refused bishops' requests to have abusers removed.

Ratzinger at the time was following laws and rules introduced by his predecessor Pope John Paul II, which largely left punishing such priests in the hands of local bishops, who often decided against conducting church trials because they found them too cumbersome.

John Paul had also made it tougher to leave the priesthood, hoping to stem the tide of thousands of priests who left in the 1970s to marry.

A consequence of that policy was that, as the priest sex abuse scandal arose in the U.S., bishops were no longer able to sidestep the lengthy church trial necessary for so-called laicization.

Rather than conduct the church trials or report abusers to police, bishops often moved abusers from parish to parish or sent them for counseling - actions which later resulted in lawsuits by abuse victims that bankrupted many U.S. dioceses. Ratzinger's request for faster procedures was rejected by Cardinal Jose Rosalio Castillo Lara, who headed the Vatican commission responsible for implementing the 1983 code.

In a March 10, 1988 letter to Ratzinger, Castillo Lara said simplifying the procedures "would endanger the fundamental right of defense" of the priest while straying from the church's legal-based system, according to the letter reprinted in L'Osservatore.

In the end - amid the explosion of abuse cases in the United States and more recently Europe - the Vatican in 2001, 2003 and most recently this summer took steps to streamline and formalize norms so that abusive priests could be removed quickly without a church trial.

The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University, said the 1983 code was problematic both in that it left it largely up to bishops to decide whether to intervene and at the same time discouraged them from taking tough action against abusers.

"What they want to do now is to make a penal law that is applied seriously, that will be more concrete and obligatory" for bishops, he said.

Monsignor Juan Ignacio Arrieta, the No. 2 in the Vatican's legal department, said that in the coming weeks proposals for revisions of the penal part of the code will be sent to Vatican consultants and advisers.

No date has been set for publication of the changes, which have been under study for two years.

Nick Cafardi, a canon lawyer who detailed the problems American bishops encountered in trying to deal with abusive priests in his book "Before Dallas," noted that the penal part of the 1983 code didn't undergo any "trial" period after it was issued.

"It went right from the drafters to being effective law - and therefore had no time to have the bumps worked out," Cafardi said in an e-mail. "And obviously there were bumps - so many that the American bishops threw up their hands and chose not to use the canonical penal process to deal with these priests."

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