WASHINGTON, D.C., 17 JUNE 2010 (ZENIT)
The proceedings of a canonical penal trial take place under the
mantel of the "pontifical secret," but a one-day seminar
sponsored by the U.S. bishops gave a look at what goes on during
such a trial.
An overview of the details in a penal proceeding as established
in canon law were explained by Father Lawrence DiNardo of the
Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the May 25 event.
Father DiNardo was the last of four canon lawyers who presented
at the seminar various aspects of their field, as it relates to
clergy sexual abusers.
Videos and texts of the four speakers' presentations, the
questions-and-answers sessions, and a panel discussion are
available online. ZENIT has this week provided commentaries on
Father DiNardo's address aimed to simplify canon law terminology
and give an outline of some of the most relevant documents that,
coupled with the actual Code of Canon Law, give policy and
procedure for dealing with clergy sexual abusers.
He also illustrated a potential course of events that could take
place from the moment a bishop has received an allegation that a
priest or deacon has sexually abused a minor.
Getting the facts
The first stage of the process is explained in Canon 1717 and is
called the prior investigation
prior, that is, to the trial itself.
The bishop himself, or more usually, someone delegated by him,
sets about determining if the allegation is valid: if a crime
has been committed and if it is actionable. Father DiNardo
explained that sometimes an allegation will fold in this first
step. By way of example, he recounted a case in which the priest
accused had never even worked in the parish where the alleged
crime was to have taken place, and a very preliminary
investigation showed the allegations to be false.
The lawyer also explained the role of diocesan review boards,
not established by canon law, but which enter into the process
at this point.
If the case is valid, that is, the allegation has a sufficient
degree of credibility, then it is turned over to the Vatican's
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That Holy See office
will decide how to proceed: to begin a judicial trial, or an
administrative proceeding, or for some cases (particularly if
the priest has admitted to the crimes or a civil trial has found
him guilty, or in other grave circumstances), the doctrinal
congregation can petition the Holy Father "ex officio" for the
dismissal of the priest from the clerical state.
Father DiNardo noted that during this preliminary investigation,
the faculties of the accused priest can be (at least
temporarily) suspended. During the panel discussion following
his talk, it was explained that the exact timing of that
possible suspension often depends on agreements with civil
authorities, and the effort to avoid hampering civil
Going to court
The Pittsburgh lawyer explained what a tribunal is like if the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decrees that a penal
procedure, a judicial trial, should be held.
The tribunal itself is made up of three judges
one presiding judge and two collegiate judges. There is a
promoter of justice (similar to a prosecuting attorney in a
civil system), an advocate or advocates for the accused. There
can also be auditors
people delegated by the judge to hear testimony. And there is a
notary entrusted with ensuring that all the acts of the trial
For the tribunal to be formed for a particular case, the accused
has the right to approve the members. And then the tribunal sets
about establishing what is the issue at hand.
Declarations from parties and witnesses are heard, but not in
the method of examination and cross-examination that civil
courts use, Father DiNardo clarified. Instead, the promoter of
justice develops the questions, and the judge determines what
will be asked.
The priest explained that it is an investigative, not
adversarial process, "not one lawyer trying to out-lawyer the
other. It's really a judge or judges seeking the truth."
Expert witnesses (such as psychologists or psychiatrists) and
documentary evidence can also be presented.
At the concluding state, the promoter or justice and the
advocate for the accused present briefs. The latter has the
opportunity to offer a rebuttal to the presentation of the
Finally, the tribunal makes its decision, and determines the
Better or worse
The seminar participants concluded the day with a brief
question-and-answer session directed to all four panel
The lawyers further clarified the reason for the pontifical
secret, saying that it is not to "keep things a secret," but to
ensure that testimony is not polluted by interaction among
witnesses. They recalled that even in civil legal proceedings, a
similar demand of "secrecy" is made.
Though the process might seem cumbersome, Father DiNardo
proposed that it is neither better nor worse than civil
proceedings. And he offered his own experience that processes
can be completed in as few as seven months or as many as more
other lawyers, he said, could give cases of even faster or
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