Church Has Means to Punish Priests in Abuse Cases, Says Vatican Aide

Archbishop Herranz Offers View on Dealing with Allegations

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MILAN, Italy, MAY 6, 2002 ( The Catholic Church has all the legal means necessary to punish priests who commit sexual abuse, says the president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts.

Archbishop Julián Herranz, who attended the recent meeting of U.S. cardinals and bishops and the Roman Curia that addressed the scandals in America, said that «a correct legal view» of the problem is capable of «re-establishing serenity in so many disturbed spirits.»

The archbishop spoke in a personal capacity, not as an official comment «on the final statement of the mentioned meeting,» when he held a conference on canon law April 29 at the Catholic University of Milan.

The Spanish archbishop´s written text, which ZENIT consulted, makes clear that the Code of Canon Law provides absolutely for the expulsion from the clerical state of those priests who stain themselves with this type of sin and others relating to the Sixth Commandment.

At the same time, the archbishop reminded his audience that the Church´s legislation, like any other, calls for respect for the fundamental rights of all the individuals involved, especially the possible victims and the accused priest.

«In extreme cases, certain crimes committed by sacred ministers, which affect not only this concrete form of homosexuality that is pederasty, may be punished with a life sentence of expulsion from the clerical state,» the archbishop said. His text referred to Canon 1395.

John Paul II´s November letter «Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela» addresses the crimes or sacrileges committed by priests. Archbishop Herranz said the document clarified that these accusations «call for necessary guarantees, with a previous regular investigation, proof of the facts and of culpability, ensuring at the same time the right of defense both of the accused as well as the victim.»

«To dispense with these procedures, which in the most serious cases can be particularly rapid, and with other penal and disciplinary measures that must be taken to prohibit or limit the activity of those priests to whom grave evidence of behavior of this type is imputed, would denote the absence of the most fundamental sense of justice in relation to all the individuals affected, and those who could be so in the future,» the archbishop warned.

«Following the emotional wave of public clamor, some suggest the ´obligation´ of the ecclesiastical authority to report to the civil judge all the cases of which there is knowledge, as well as the obligation to communicate to the same civil judge all the relative documentation of the ecclesiastical archives,» the archbishop continued.

At the same time, «as happens with the jurisprudence prevailing in the United States,» some call for «an almost limitless legal responsibility of the Church for any criminal behavior of its ministers,» Archbishop Herranz added.

«From my point of view, justice calls for the avoidance of these unwarranted simplifications,» he said.

He continued: «On the one hand, it is necessary to keep in mind that when the ecclesiastical authorities address these delicate problems, not only do they have the duty to carefully respect the fundamental principle of presumed innocence, but they must also be in keeping with the demands of the relation of trust, and of the corresponding ´professional secret´ that is inherent in relations between bishops and priests who work with them, as well as between priests and faithful.»

«The sphere of legal responsibility of bishops and of the institutions of the Church,» the archbishop explained, «must be delimited according to what with certainty and effectively could have been done to avoid the crime, likewise keeping in mind that, even in the case of clerics, there are circumstances and realms of behavior that are not controllable, as they do not affect the exercise of the ministry, but are part of the sphere of his private life, and of his exclusive personal responsibility.»

«There is no doubt that in order to address this complex situation, legal prudence counsels, even civil authorities, not to give in to the climate of suspicion, to often unfounded accusations, to belated accusations that smack of a setup, to taking advantage for financial ends of the confusion and nervousness, which often accompany these waves of public scandal,» the archbishop added.

«It is necessary to energetically avoid, and this is everyone´s duty, those few who try repeatedly to throw mud on the Church,» he stressed. «It is necessary to oppose the maneuvers that try to extend guilt, or at least suspicion, to that enormous majority of priests — hundreds of thousands in the world — who live their vocation and exercise their ministry in exemplary fidelity to Christ and with generous abnegation and service to souls.»

«It is necessary to oppose the attempts of those who wish to make difficult or contest the necessary pastoral work of priests with children and youth, or to discourage vocations to the Catholic priesthood and entry into seminaries generically and unjustly slandered,» the archbishop added.

The president of the Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts concluded by summarizing in a formula his recommendation amid the current crisis: «the serenity of law.»

Justice, he explained, «will help one not to fall prey to easy emotions and superficial impressions, not to allow oneself to be influenced by the media impact of these painful cases, as well as by simple financial considerations, or by personal concerns for one´s own public image.»

«And what is more, one must avoid taking these truly exceptional cases, which certainly call for appropriate government measures, as occasions to put in doubt the foundations of the doctrine and discipline of the Church on the priesthood,» he said. «This prudence is also exacted by true legal wisdom.»

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