WASHINGTON, D.C., 16 JUNE 2010 (ZENIT)
The Church's law provides for various punishments when her sons
or daughters go astray, but in the case of priest sexual
abusers, perhaps the most serious canonical punishment is not
always the best one, according to one canon lawyer.
This suggestion was made by Father John Beal of the Diocese of
Erie, Pennsylvania, when he addressed participants at a one-day
seminar May 25 on canon law and sexual abuse.
Father Beal cautioned that turning a priest-sexual predator
loose in society by separating him from the clerical state might
solve the internal problem for the Church, but could serve to
worsen the issue as a whole, particularly when the chance of a
successful civil trial is minimal.
The canon lawyer made this observation during the
question-and-answer session that followed his address on "Crime
and Punishment in the Catholic Church: An Overview of
Possibilities and Problems."
He was the third canon lawyer to address the seminar, which was
sponsored by the U.S. episcopal conference and the Canon Law
Society of America. Sponsors explained that 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 is this week providing commentaries on
Father Beal noted how those who mete out punishment in the
as in a civil legal proceeding
have the challenge of making the punishment fit the crime, a
task that is anything but clear-cut and rarely garners unanimous
Nevertheless, the Church teaches that penal sanctions in an
ecclesial context have essentially a three-fold aim: "repair the
scandal, restore justice, reform the offender."
The priest gave an overview of the possibilities of punishment
for addressing the crime of sexual abuse by members of the
clergy: "These measures are: medicinal penalties or censures,
expiatory penalties, [...] and penal remedies. There are also
two non-penal strategies which may be useful in addressing the
The first of these, medicinal penalties, are "deprivations of
spiritual goods," privations which are theoretically temporary,
and whose "primary aim is to impress upon the offender the
seriousness of his crime and thereby prompt him to repent and
reform," he said.
The present Code of Canon Law includes three such censures:
excommunication (c. 1331), interdict (c. 1332), and suspension
Regarding excommunication, Father Beal clarified that it does
not expel a person from the Church, though he is forbidden to
"participate ministerially in the Mass or any other liturgical
rite, to celebrate or receive the sacraments and sacramentals,
to exercise the functions of any church office or ministry, and
to perform acts of church governance."
An interdict, the second medicinal censure, "prohibits a person
from ministerial participation in and reception of the
sacraments and sacramentals."
And the third, suspension, is a punishment that can only affect
members of the clergy. Depending on circumstances and degrees,
it prohibits the clergy from "some or all acts of the power of
orders" and the "power of governance," (such as performing the
sacraments or administering Church property), or from "some or
all rights or functions attached to their offices" (such as
Father Beal proposed that censures are unlikely to be effective
punishments for priest abusers.
He explained: "Since they can only be imposed after a warning,
there must be evidence of an incident of abuse or at least
suspicion that a particular cleric is prone to such abuse before
a censure can even be threatened. Sad experience of the recent
past suggests that even the sternest warnings and threats are
unlikely to be effective in deterring abusive clerics from
repeating their offenses. Even when a censure has been imposed,
it must be remitted once the offender evidences repentance
and, as many bishops have learned to their chagrin, sexually
abusive clergy can make very convincing displays of repentance
when they are confronted with evidence of their offenses."
Abusers can also be punished with expiatory penalties, which
are: a prohibition from living in a particular place or an order
to live in a specific place (Father Beal compared it to house
arrest); a deprivation of a power, office, function, right,
privilege, faculty, favor, title or insignia (these deprivations
have a wide range, including prohibition to preach or hear
confessions, for example, or having the papal honor of monsignor
removed); a prohibition on the exercise of powers, office,
functions and rights; a penal transfer from one office to
another; and finally, dismissal from the clerical state.
Father Beal took time to spell out this last penalty. He
clarified the "ontological" change that comes with holy orders,
making a priest a priest forever. What is not permanent,
however, are his faculties as a priest
his permission to act as a priest, saying Mass, hearing
confessions, etc., and the "juridic or legal status that is
known in canon law as the 'clerical state.'"
"These appointments and empowerments can be lost as can the
clerical state itself. The clerical state can be lost by the
declaration that a person's ordination was invalid, by the grant
of the favor of a dispensation by the Holy See, and by the
imposition of the penalty of dismissal following an
administrative or judicial process," he explained. "A cleric who
loses the clerical state is thereby stripped of any offices,
ministries or delegated power he may have still had, loses the
rights proper to the clerical state and is relieved of its
save for the obligation of celibacy
and is prohibited from exercising the powers of his order."
The canon lawyer noted a practical consequence as well, at least
in the United States: the priest also loses his financial
support, the possibility of a pension, and health insurance.
Father Beal then considered penal remedies and penances. The
first is a formal warning given when there is grave suspicion of
offense but a lack of sufficient evidence for a penal process. A
penance, on the other hand, can be given when there is
substantial evidence but the penal process is barred because of
some other circumstance, such as age or infirmity. A penance
like this could be barring the priest from ministry and
requiring him to retire to a life of prayer and penance.
Finally, the canon lawyer looked at the two non-penal remedies:
an administrative procedure leading to a dispensation from the
obligations of the clerical state and return to the lay state,
and a declaration of an impediment to the exercise of orders.
This first "remedy" involves a request made to the Holy See to
return to the lay state, a request that comes either from the
priest himself, or from the priest's bishop or superior who sees
an "urgent need for expeditious action."
The declaration of an impediment deals with those who have
psychic illnesses. "When a priest clearly has committed offenses
with minors but is judged too mentally unbalanced to be held
criminally culpable, the declaration of the impediment might be
the most expeditious way to distance him from public ministry
and the risk of future offenses," Father Beal opined.
Step by step
The canon lawyer gave a brief overview of the process for
dealing with a priest accused of sexual abuse. The task of
handling this process is reserved to the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith.
If a bishop receives an accusation that seems plausible, Father
Beal explained, he conducts a preliminary investigation and
forwards the results and his recommendation to Rome. The
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then determines how
Father Beal added: "If the Congregation decides that a process
possibly leading to the imposition of penal sanctions is called
for, it has several options. First, the Congregation can order
the initiation of a penal trial either at the Congregation
itself or in the diocese where the complaint originated. The
trial proceeds in two stages, the first to determine guilt or
innocence and the second to apply the appropriate penalty.
"Second, the Congregation can order the initiation of an
administrative process at the local level. In this process the
bishop serves as decision-maker and the accused must be given
the basic elements of what we would call 'due process.'
"Third, when evidence of the accused's guilt is clear and there
is an urgent reason to proceed expeditiously, the Congregation
can take the case to the Holy Father 'ex officio' and request
that the accused be dismissed from the clerical state as a
Father Beal concluded his address with some considerations
"When searching for the just balance of the aims of canonical
penal law, the most important consideration for decision-makers
in the Church is not how best to punish the offender for past
crimes but how best to protect the vulnerable from future
abuse," he said.
In this context, keeping the priest from ministry that entails
contact with a vulnerable population is key. The most sure way
of ensuring this is leveling the most serious sanction:
dismissal from the clerical state.
"As far as ministry in the Church is concerned," Father Beal
said, "the penalty of dismissal is the ecclesiastical equivalent
of the death penalty." And it might "help to dispel scandal by
making it clear both to the faithful and to the broader public
that, as Pope John Paul II said, 'there is no room in the
priesthood for those who abuse children.'"
Nevertheless, as the priest extrapolated in the
question-and-answer session, "penalty of dismissal does little,
if anything, to contribute to the rehabilitation of the
He noted that "dismissing a person from the clerical state also
cuts him loose from whatever imperfect systems for monitoring
and control the Church may have and leaves him free in society."
And in any case, the Church cannot physically restrain a priest
from continuing to "minister," even if he no longer has the
authority of the Church. As a case in point, Father Beal pointed
to the example of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, or the online
He continued: "Our understanding of the psychodynamics of sexual
abusers is quite limited, much more limited than we once
thought, but it does seem clear that those prone to compulsive
or addictive behavior are most likely to 'act out' when they are
under stress, lonely, and cut off from a social support network
precisely the situation in which dismissed clerics are likely to
"The Church might benefit society by removing abusive clerics
from ministry but stopping short of dismissing them from the
clerical state so that it can at least attempt to monitor their
"Balancing the aims of restoring justice, removing scandal and
reforming the offender is not an easy task," Father Beal
concluded. "Efforts to achieve a just balance among these ends
will open Church authorities to criticism from all sides just as
efforts to find a balance in the secular arena has resulted in
sharp criticism of secular judges, including the justices of the
Supreme Court. But, in an imperfect world, one does what one
can. And if we do what we can, perhaps we shall achieve in time
that object all sublime of letting the punishment fit the
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