The New York Times today offers a document that it clearly sees as the smoking gun that implicates Cardinal Ratzinger in the continuing abuse scandals. The headline is what we are supposed to read and remember: Pope Put Off Punishing Abusive Priest. That is inaccurate, based on the content of the story itself. The actions of the abusive priest from Oakland came to light in 1978, six years after he was ordained, and he was convicted and removed from the ministry. He underwent treatment. He reemerged without diocesan approval as a youth counselor in a parish. When this was discovered, he was removed again. In other words, the diocese did what it was supposed to do.
I'm know little about the canon law issues here, but it seems that the process worked. The dealings with Rome concerned not punishment as such but laicization, which is separate matter, one that removes the priestly status forever. In a 1985 letter, Cardinal Ratzinger said that he needed to consider not just this case but the good of the Universal Church, by which he surely meant that extraordinary cases can create dangerous precedents: the Pope can't very well remove priestly status instantly for any priest on request. It is an exceedingly serious matter that can take many years. Ratzinger asked for more time, eventually laicizing the priest two years later. The former priest was eventually convicted of more crimes and was imprisoned.
From my reading of the case, the Rome's treatment of the priestly status of this particular case is a completely separate matter from the diocesan domain of discovery, punishment, and enforcement - which might have been tougher but that is only clear in retrospect. In fact, the only reason the NYT has headlined this case at all is to implicate Cardinal Ratzinger, and here I just don't see how Rome's dealings here could have made any difference. This is a case of tragedy and difficulty and workable but imperfect disciplinary practices, not a case of Rome's negligence.