Bishops Actually a Step Ahead in Addressing Scandal

Canon Lawyer Gives Overview of 3 Decades of Negotiation

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 15, 2010 ( The U.S. bishops’ conference was actively involved in addressing the problem of sexual abuse by clergy as early as the mid-1980s, according to a canon lawyer who provided an overview of the bishops’ experience.

Religious Sister of Mercy Sister Sharon Euart spoke of the prelates’ 30 years of interceding when she addressed participants at a one-day canon law conference May 25.

Sister Euart’s talk was on «Canon Law and Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis: An Overview of the U.S. Experience.» She was the second canon lawyer to address the seminar, which was sponsored by the U.S. episcopal conference and the Canon Law Society of America. Sponsors explained the event was «held in response to media interest in clergy sexual abuse.»  Videos and texts of the four speakers’ presentations, the questions-and-answers sessions, and a panel discussion are available online. ZENIT began this week to provide commentaries on the talks, considering on Monday an address on canon law and civil law.

Sister Euart began her talk by clarifying that «the Church’s canon law has made provision for sexual abuse of minors to be a grave offense since the Middle Ages. Sins against the sixth commandment with a minor were considered criminal acts. Condemnation of this kind of crime has always been firm and unequivocal.»

The most recent revision to the Code of Canon Law, released in 1983, reduced the number of ecclesiastical crimes and penalties, she said, but the «condemnation of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy was retained as a crime that was punishable by dismissal from the clerical state.»

Wanting things simpler

Sister Euart went on to explain that precisely this punishment was the initial focus of the U.S. bishops’ efforts to work with the Holy See in addressing sexual abuse.

The ’83 code gives two options for imposing a dismissal from the clerical state, she illustrated: «1) voluntary petition by the priest in question for laicization […] or 2) penal dismissal from the clerical state by means of the judicial process — a collegiate tribunal of three qualified priest-judges.»

The U.S. bishops wanted and sought a more streamlined process, an «administrative process of dismissal from the clerical state» that put more of the decision-making process into the hands of the diocesan bishop. Sister Euart noted that they sought, in fact, a process that would enable them to «dismiss the priest based on pastoral necessity rather than as a penalty,» wherein the criteria for removal would be future protection of children.

However, she continued, from the canonical perspective, «due process protections for the priest» had to be ensured, and the Holy See and the U.S. bishops did not find a streamlined, administrative process that would duly protect the rights of all involved parties.

Meanwhile in 1987, the U.S. episcopal conference already offered dioceses five principles regarding sexual abuse. These were made public in 1992.

«At that time — early-1990s — the bishops publicly committed their pastoral energy to attempting to break the cycle of abuse,» Sister Euart said.

Furthermore, she added: «When discussions between representatives of the [U.S. bishops’ conference] and the Holy See failed to reach agreement on an administrative non-penal procedure, Pope John Paul II set up in 1993 a joint commission of representatives from the Holy See and the USCCB to study the judicial penal process and propose ways of streamlining it.

«The work of the joint commission resulted in the proposal of derogations of canon law, i.e., changes in specific laws, to provide a wider applicability of the penal process of dismissal in cases of sexual abuse of minors. The derogations were overwhelmingly approved by the bishops and then, with some modifications, promulgated by the Holy See in 1993.»

Clearing things up

By the late 1990s, the canon lawyer affirmed, most U.S. dioceses already had certain systems in place for dealing with the sexual abuse issue — principles had been adopted, review boards established, and other measure implemented.

According to Sister Euart, «The remaining canonical issues were mainly ensuring that priests who were predators would not be returned to ministry and that these decisions would be upheld by the appropriate offices in Rome. At that time, there seemed to be a lack of clarity over which Roman congregations had final authority in these matters, a situation that left many bishops frustrated in their attempts to discipline priest offenders.»

In 2001, a document from John Paul II clarified any doubts, affirming that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith «has exclusive Church authority and is to provide special procedural norms to declare or impose canonical sanctions in cases involving these canonical crimes.»

Included in the norms of the 2001 document, Sister Euart noted, are provisions reflecting the derogations approved for the U.S. by the Holy See in 1993, «effectively speaking, turning the provisions that were formerly only particular law for the United States into universal law applicable throughout the world.»

Hence, when the scandal hit U.S. headlines in 2002, there was already a long series of steps that had been taken to address the issue. More would come: U.S. cardinals and episcopal conference officials met with Vatican leaders in April 2002. From that meeting, Sister Euart recounted, it was decided that the U.S. bishops would create a series of standards and policies. This eventually took shape in the «Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons,» approved by the Holy See that same year.

Hindsight’s 20/20

Sister Euart proposed certain observations as possible lessons from the bishops’ experience.

She suggested that public discussions about the matter as early as the mid-1980s would have been helpful, so that the «public was as aware of the bishops’ commitment to dealing with the problem as they were with the misconduct leading to the crisis.» Regardless, however, she emphasized the importance of accountability, saying that «[b]ishops needed then, and continue to need today, to embrace the problem, accept their responsibility for their sometimes flawed solutions and ensure that future cases will be handled swiftly and effectively.»

A third observation dealt with the «cumbersome» canon law processes. Canon law, she maintained, was not the problem. «The problem was the bishops’ reluctance to utilize the then-existing provisions of canon law for removing priests from ministry. The canonical tools were there.

«That being said, however, the bishops’ application of the canonical procedures was hindered at times by the extraordinary and cumbersome procedures and by the fact that few canonists had training and experience in canonical penal law.» In this regard, she praised workshops given in 2003 to train canon lawyers in the application of canonical penal procedures.

Double standard?

As Sister Euart and her colleagues took questions from seminar participants, the complexity of these issues again became apparent. A brief theological explanation of the eternal priesthood, versus a removal from the clerical state, was needed.

Other clarifications regarded the cumbersome nature of canon law, which led one member of the panel — Father John Beal — to compare it to any legal proceeding. He affirmed that canon law, like American law, is committed to due process for the accused. He said that in any legal system, «If you are going to give the accused a fair trial […] you are going to commit yourself to some fairly cumbersome procedures.» As a case in point, he referenced the complexities of bringing to justice the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Another questioner referred to a «canon lawyer friend» seeking to defend two priests from sexual abuse allegations –
– priests the lawyer believes are innocent.

In this regard, Father Beal made the observation that «there was a time in the ‘bad old days’ when the word of the priest was always given more weight than the […] victim. The pendulum has swung in the other direction and now if an accusation is made that is not transparently false it has become incumbent upon the accused to prove his innocence. There has been a considerable shift.»

He referred to National Football League player Ben Roethlisberger, accused of sexual assault in March, saying that «in the canonical process he would be out of the league at this point» since the amount of evidence found by the prosecutor and deemed insufficient for charges «would have been sufficient in a canonical trial on sexual abuse to convict him.»

The priest did not make a declaration about whether the pendulum has now swung into a «reasonable point,» saying that with only anecdotal evidence on the matter, it was a judgment best made by others with more evidence.

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