Cardinal Dulles Weighs In on Proposal for U.S. Bishops

Cautions That Outright Dismissal from Priesthood Is a Complex Issue

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NEW YORK, JUNE 11, 2002 ( Cardinal Avery Dulles describes as a «compromise» the draft document which recommends how U.S. bishops should deal with priests involved in sexual abuse of minors.

Writing in the New York Times, the cardinal noted that initial reactions to the draft document fall into two general categories.

On the one hand are those favoring an approach of «zero tolerance» and «one strike and you´re out.» A second school of thought, Cardinal Dulles noted, «cautions against hasty and simplistic solutions and asks important questions.»

«The draft document,» the theologian added, «[…] represents a compromise. … On the issue of dismissal from the priesthood, for example, it seeks to steer a middle course, calling for the return to lay status of any who in the future commit a single act of abuse of a minor and all who in the past have committed more than one such offense.»

The cardinal´s article appeared as U.S. bishops prepare for a crucial meeting this week in Dallas, Texas, to decide how to deal with the crisis of priestly scandals. A bishops´ ad hoc commission has published a draft program on how to deal with the sex abuses cases and how to avoid them in the future.

In the Times article, Cardinal Dulles cautioned: «The issue of dismissal from the priesthood is complex and contentious. Theologically speaking, anyone who is ordained remains a priest forever. To return a priest to the lay population is to obfuscate this theological principle. Is it not better, the second school will ask, for the church to take responsibility for its erring priests and continue to care for them as priests rather than dismiss them, as if expelling them from its ranks would protect society from them?

«There may be a need to limit a priest´s ministry, even severely. He may have to be sent to a monastery for a life of seclusion and penance. But involuntary return to the laity should be very rare and (as the draft recognizes) should never be imposed without due process.»

He added: «The draft document does not explicitly raise the question of homosexuality, but it is a matter of obvious concern. Noting the large proportion of offenses against adolescent boys, some bishops will seek to screen out all homosexually inclined seminarians. Others will see the issue rather as one of obtaining psychologically mature candidates capable of living up to their commitment to celibacy.»

The cardinal further cautions: «The bishops are understandably concerned to show that they are taking bold and decisive measures. But they should take care not to lock the church into positions that will later prove to be unwise.»

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