Canon Lawyer on the Aftermath of the U.S. Scandals

Edward Peters Sees Signs of Hope — for Now

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YPSILANTI, Michigan, JULY 18, 2003 ( It’s too soon to tell how the Church in the United States is handling the investigations and pursuing solutions in the wake of the clerical sex-abuse scandals, says a canon lawyer.

Edward Peters, who holds doctoral degrees in canon and civil law and is a professor at the Institute for Pastoral Theology here, shared with ZENIT his insights into the scandals and subsequent investigations, in light of the recent U.S. bishops’ conference meeting in St. Louis.

Q: From the standpoint of canon law, how have the U.S. bishops been handling the investigations into the clerical sex-abuse scandals?

Peters: The short answer is, «much better,» but we are still too close to the situation to be able to assess it completely or accurately. Remember that while several factors combined to produce this crisis in the first place, it was aggravated by a long-standing disregard for canon law.

Today, besides a renewed appreciation that basic canon law can be effectively applied in these cases, we also have very new procedures — specifically the U.S. Charter — that must be accommodated in addressing actual cases. It takes time even to learn those new procedures, let alone to apply them efficiently.

So, as I said, real progress is certainly being made and much has been learned, but there are likely more lessons down the road.

Q: Will the resignation of the National Review Board chairman complicate the abuse investigations for the bishops?

Peters: I do not believe it will. From the outset, many had reservations about Gov. Keating being the best man for the job.

To begin with, the governor was a professional politician, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it does send an odd message that the bishops — who have been accused of conducting themselves with too much deference to public image questions rather than to moral or justice issues — chose a politician to head the cleanup process.

Second, Gov. Keating himself surely committed some grave missteps when, for example, he called on Catholics to boycott parishes and dioceses, compared bishops to the Mafia, and so on.

Obviously, the governor was angry at how many priests had violated young people over many years and at how many bishops responded to those grave offenses in wholly inadequate ways, and that’s fine. That only puts the governor in a very large boat filled with lots of other shocked Catholics, lay and clerics alike.

But to take that anger and then to use it to call upon Catholics to shun their Church, or to lump bishops in with an international criminal organization that has been censured with excommunications for centuries, I don’t see such a man being an effective leader for change.

Q: How crucial will the Vatican visitations be for seminaries? Could you describe for lay people how the visitations work?

Peters: Visitations will be helpful, but in themselves they are not crucial. To begin with, they are slow and cumbersome processes. We had seminary visitations in the United States in the 1980s. They took two years to organize, almost four years to conduct, and all of that was before any resulting data could even begin to be analyzed.

Also, it is well known in any large organization that announced visitations or inspections give those to be visited considerable time to organize their responses — not in a dishonest way, but neither in way that is designed to let their faults and flaws show clearly. Rome knows all of this, of course.

In my opinion, seminary visitations tend to treat seminaries as being far more independent of bishops and religious superiors than, at least according to canon law, they really are. The lines of authority in seminaries are very short and very clear.

In most cases, for example, bishops have an unfettered hand to appoint rectors of seminaries, and there are numerous canonical ways to appoint qualified faculty in seminaries and to remove those at any level therein who fail to teach in accord with the Church’s mission.

In other words, if a seminary doesn’t reflect the values of the bishop over time, there are ways he can directly deal with the problem. Eventually, seminary problems are reflective of episcopal problems.

Q. Is this true of so-called national or inter-diocesan seminaries as well?

Peters: Yes — although the oversight authority of any individual bishop is somewhat diluted, of course. What’s not reduced, though, is an individual bishop’s ability to vote with his feet, as it were, by sending his future priests off to a different seminary with better academics and more complete formation programs than the one his diocese formerly used.

Q. Is the seminary picture better in the United States now than it was during the 1980 visitations? If so, does that suggest that the Vatican visitations helped?

Peters: The answer to both questions is clearly yes. We should look forward to the next round of visitations currently being planned in Rome. But, besides the fact that some serious problems of the traditional sort remain, some new ones are presenting themselves and should be addressed.

Let me give one example, which I’ll call the «faculty crunch.» We’re now nearly 40 years past the close of the Second Vatican Council. There are essentially no current seminary faculty who can draw on a pre-conciliar education themselves, not that that education was perfect, but it certainly tended to instill a deeper philosophical and theological foundation than we see today.

As a result, even a solid bishop, who manages to find a sound rector, is left trying to staff his seminary with professors who, as a group, experienced considerably less academic rigor than did earlier generations.

These younger faculty, who are now middle-aged and in their most productive years, might well be completely orthodox and filled with true love of the Church, but they have not been given either the depth or the unifying breadth of education that their own professors received.

An old saying has it «Nemo dat quod non habet» — No one gives what he doesn’t have. So you can see the problem today, even where hearts and minds are united with the Church.

Q. Is there a solution?

Peters: Sure. First, bishops should organize specific and serious ways for committed seminary faculty to catch up on things their own seminary education slighted. Second, bishops and religious superiors should consider concentrating qualified faculty in fewer institutions.

We have, I suggest, neither the students nor the faculty to adequately fill and staff as many seminaries as we now operate. But smaller numbers can be offset to some degree by higher quality. Remember that canon law already gives ample authority over seminary direction to bishops and religious superiors.

The projected seminary visitations might well give Rome data it can use to show bishops how to use that authority most effectively in these difficult times.

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Peters’ canon law Web site can be accessed via

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