It took courage for Fr. Holmes to make those pointed statements about bad shepherds. It took boldness to call out all those who have taken serious advantage of their priesthood. It also required humility, because the people he was talking about, whom he said needed our prayers more than ever, are his brother priests. He called their actions evil and sick; it took a brave man to say that there is evil in the ranks, and that we, in the congregation, deserve better than what has been allowed to happen. It took fearlessness for him to suggest that civil authority could potentially have a place in the resolution of many of these abuse cases.
Dr. Jeff Mirus, in an article at Catholic Culture offers a bit of caution with regard to involving civil authority in Church affairs, such as the abuse cases:
The Church does not and should not recognize the right of the State to interfere in her own affairs. In her own sphere the Church is a sovereign power, and the ability of the independent spiritual power of the Church to inform the police power of the State is important to social health.At first glance, this might really hit a raw nerve with someone who has been abused or anyone who might know someone who has been abused. Their argument might be that this line of thinking is exactly what got the Church embroiled in this scandal in the first place -- minimal to no oversight of Church affairs. But, Mirus goes on to explain:
...[T]he State does not always make sound laws, promoting legitimate goods and prohibiting clear evils. The Church, which has a superior understanding of the moral law, naturally desires a certain independence of civil authority. In all her dealings, then, the Church has a strong vested interest in preserving a certain legal distance between herself and the State, and one of the purposes of Canon Law is to ensure the kind of tight management of ecclesiastical affairs that will minimize recourse to the power of the State. Overall, it is a healthy instinct for a bishop to be reluctant to seek civil recourse for handling problems associated with managing his clergy.Mirus is making the point that subjecting the Church to a standard that has little grounding in moral or natural law is inappropriate. The Church keeping a sensible distance from that system protects the vast majority of the clergy from "McCarthy-like" tactics that could potentially cause irrevocable damage to their reputations. As it is, the priesthood of the Catholic Church is under serious attack by the media who knows very little about its mechanics, and speculate far too often about what they think they know. The Bishop is better suited to handle his own clergy and has own institutional authority, Canon Law, to deal with internal issues.
However, Mirus also looks at the other side of the coin. He points out two very valid reasons why recourse to civil authority can be appropriate.
First, apart from the question of whether priests should be considered exactly like ordinary citizens, priests can and do sometimes commit crimes against lay people, who are not ecclesiastical persons and are certainly ordinary citizens. Second, these crimes can be either canonical (failure, for example, to conduct the liturgy according to the rubrics, thereby violating the rights of the faithful to one of the goods of the Church) or clearly civil (stealing, assault, sexual abuse, and so on). The State has not only an interest but a positive duty to protect its citizens against natural injury at someone else’s hands, whether the aggressor is an ecclesiastical person or not.Clergy who abuse their powers and commit crimes that are not of a canonical nature, but of a civil nature, fall under the auspices of the civil authority which is designed to seek justice for its citizens. Mirus goes on to point out that for these very reasons, the Church has willingly cooperated with civil authorities in many such cases because "as sexual abuse is a legitimate civil crime, typically perpetrated against lay persons, right judgment suggests that exposure of guilty priests to the civil law will ordinarily be the most effective course of action."
But when is it appropriate for the Bishops to turn the matter over to civil authorities? At the first accusation? Before the Church has conducted its own investigation? Mirus offers this:
...[A] bishop’s primary moral responsibility in an abuse case is to make sure his priest is kept from doing any further harm. It may be possible for a good bishop to do this, as long as the priest is responsive to his authority, without calling upon the civil authority. For obvious reasons, this recommends itself whenever the bishop is not yet absolutely certain of guilt. But the key point to note is that the bishop is morally bound to do all in his power to ensure that no further abuse takes place.That should make everyone feel more at ease, at least with understanding the internal workings of the process by the bishops. However, we all know that many bishops have failed in this regard. Moving priests to different parishes, different diocese, etc. have all been reported in relation to these atrocious scandals. Thus, we hear the cries of an outraged public for punishment to the full extent of the law in the civil courts.
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a.k.a. The Dallas Charter, was adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in June 2002 (and revised in 2005) was in response to allegations of sex abuse by their clergy. The document laid out very stringent guidelines for dealing with any clergy suspected or found guilty of sexual abuse. As, Mirus points out, it is the moral responsibility of the bishop to ensure that no further harm is committed. But what of a priest falsely accused? What happens then?
As I noted up front, it took courage to point out with conviction the evil that exists among the priestly ranks. But, when a priest has been accused and no further evidence to corroborate the allegation is produced, what is the bishop's duty then? The Charter says this in article 5 of the section entitled, To Guarantee an Effective Response to Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors:
A priest or deacon who is accused of sexual abuse of a minor is to be accorded the presumption of innocence during the investigation of the allegation and all appropriate steps are to be taken to protect his reputation. He is to be encouraged to retain the assistance of civil and canonical counsel. If the allegation is not proven, every step possible is to be taken to restore his good name, should it have been harmed.This statement from the charter is very vague and brings to mind a couple of questions:
Does the bishop place a priest back into parish life after such an allegation?
How long does a bishop wait before he can safely reintegrate his priest?
Would a priest who has been accused ever feel safe in active ministry again?
It is clear from this statement that the bishop does have a moral duty to his brother priest to trust him again, and to restore his reputation. I think there is something very important to realize in this whole debacle: Not every priest accused of abuse is guilty. The Dallas Charter, to calm the fever pitch of cries for justice, did very little to provide for rescuing those priests who may have been falsely accused.
While in many cases of abuse it is easily discernible when it is appropriate to turn the situation over to civil authorities i.e., there are multiple accusations, evidence is easily attained, etc. There are some cases where a sole accuser has no evidence beyond his own memory of events -- a his word against mine scenario.
Is the accuser always to be regarded as "right" in these cases? What of the priest; who defends his reputation, his character? Shouldn't the bishop at least do that much? And, after a thorough investigation that turns up nothing, shouldn't priestly faculties be restored?
Is there ever going to be a time when a priest, who has been removed from his duties and denied his ability to function as a priest, will be permitted to return to active ministry? Or, will we always be afraid of that priest? How does a bishop manage this in a way that truly supports the priest and leaves the congregation feeling confident in the decision. It's a situation that puts the bishops between a rock and a hard place, and the priest in limbo.
While I do understand that recourse to civil authority is necessary, urgent even in many of these sex abuse cases, I do think that the current form of exile for priests whose cases are unsubstantiated and are allowed to linger indefinitely is also an abuse of sorts. The bishops have an obligation to their brother priests on this account, as well, if they are truly to be treated as innocent until proven guilty as it states in the charter. There should be an established and agreed upon limit to the discovery phase at which point if nothing is found to uphold the charge, the priest should be exonerated and given an assignment. The charter does not set any such time frame for the length of a discovery phase. Thus, it seems a case could remain open indefinitely -- a grave disservice to an innocent priest, wouldn't you say?
It took courage for the priest in his homily to call for an end to the evils perpetrated against the young and vulnerable among us. It also takes courage for priests and bishops to come to the defense of their brothers falsely accused. But, in the current climate with so many scandals brewing, can we expect this to happen?
Unfortunately, the scenario of false accusations could happen to any of our beloved priests, and has happened, I'm sure. In protecting the innocent from harm, we must include those priests who are set adrift while allegations against them are never proven. Bishops, you must protect your priests as well as the victims of sexual abuse, and trust in Christ that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. These men deserve to have their priestly faculties restored and be returned to active ministry if indeed there is no evidence to support the allegations.
St. John Vianney -- Pray for us!