WASHINGTON, D.C., 15 JUNE 2010 (ZENIT)
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
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 Churchs
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
--- --- ---
On the Net: