What of the Innocent Priests?; Abuse Coordinator Resigns; Groups Urge Review of How Iraq Intelligence Was Used

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington DC]
Downloaded February 12, 2004

Among the many unpleasant questions raised by the clergy sex abuse scandal, not least is this: What if the priest is falsely accused?

Given the history of cover-up and subterfuge that has marked the church's response to clerical molesters, the guilt or innocence of a single priest is not a concern that resonates much beyond the clergy itself. To even raise the question, it seems, is to risk the perception of being soft on abusers.

But it's not a theoretical issue, if even a handful of the many priests currently contesting the "credible accusations" against them are found to be truthful.

But how to determine innocence?

At their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, the U.S. bishops refined procedures to deal with such accusations. In the glare of an unprecedented media frenzy (nearly 1,000 press were credentialed at the meeting) the bishops approved "particular law" for the U.S. Church, the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons."

The "Norms" are designed to ensure that the long-trampled-on rights of victims are protected, that clerical abusers are removed from ministry, and that accused priests are treated fairly.

Victims' groups say the first two goals -- protection for victims who come forward and removal from ministry -- have fallen woefully short. Church leaders, pointing to the recent audit of diocesan compliance with the Charter that established the Norms, dispute those characterizations and claim progress.

But what of the third objective? Is the church capable, given the level of public scrutiny and its history of dealing with the issue, of meting out justice?

"The church is simply not prepared to handle these cases," says Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, visiting professor of law at Georgetown University.

Speaking from his fourth floor office four blocks from the Capitol Building on a wintry Washington afternoon, the Hungarian-born Orsy pulls few punches. The Norms instigated a "very deep resentment within the clergy in the whole country," says the 82-year-old canon and civil lawyer, "an emotional break in the relationship between the bishops and their priests."

The process was flawed. "The way they [the bishops] did the legislation was unique in the history of Canon Law," says Orsy. "To make prudent laws you need reflection, discussion and peace. And they did the legislation in Dallas, right in the center of a circus, which is not the proper place [to write] legislation."

To get it right, the bishops should have considered the issue, appointed a committee to draft the Norms, and reconvened after the dust had settled a little, says Orsy. "We are dealing with a complex problem and they wanted to solve it in a simplistic way."

The Norms call on bishops to suspend a priest from ministry once a credible accusation of abuse is brought forward. If the investigation bears out the allegation, the priest (with an exception for the elderly and infirm) is to be removed from ministry.

Writing in the Boston College Law Review, Orsy spelled out his objections to the "hasty" legislation.

"The Norms offer weak protection to innocent priests and deacons who are easy targets of groundless accusations," he wrote. Meanwhile, the protections that are offered (the accused, for example, "is encouraged to retain counsel") mean little because the legal infrastructure necessary to protect the rights of the accused is almost nonexistent. "A priest is suspended and he has no reliable procedure to which he can turn," says Orsy. "It is so slow so convoluted and so lacking of properly trained personnel -- especially in small dioceses -- that it is not enough."

In the law review he put it this way: "The diocesan courts in the United States (and elsewhere) are limited in their ability to handle criminal cases. The judges and the officers of the courts were trained primarily for the adjudication of doubts about the validity of marriages (annulments)."

Additional problems:

The Norms lack a common definition of "sexual abuse." Writes Orsy: "To assign the ultimate responsibility for the definition of the crime to the diocesan bishop/eparch may result in definitions diverging from place to place and from case to case; not a sound practice in criminal law."

Similarly, the written policies for dealing with sexual abuse issues required by the Norms are not uniform. "Such an obviously deficient approach can be explained only by the extreme concern of the Conference not to trespass on the jurisdiction of the individual bishops," writes Orsy.

The "Norms offer no legal safeguards to prevent the repetition of misguided actions by bishops" nor do they give a role to the "college of presbyters [priests]" in "resolving the crisis and preventing similar ones in the future." Says Orsy: "The fact that a small percentage of them [priests] were sick is not a reason not to use all the intelligence and energy of the rest."

The "zero tolerance" policy included in the Norms fails to make a "critical distinction." Writes Orsy: "…the law should have 'zero tolerance' toward any crime by proscribing it, but the judge and jury should weigh and ponder the personal responsibility and culpability of the accused (which can exist on different degrees) and come to a decision accordingly."

The diocesan review boards established by the Norms serve at the pleasure of the local bishop and are appointed by him. "Had the priests and the people of the diocese been given an opportunity to have a voice in the selection of the candidates for the board, the chance to provide wise advice to the bishops would have been greater." Says Orsy: "The danger that some bishops may appoint persons who will 'never cause any problems' is obvious."

The clergy sex abuse crisis, says Orsy, is a symptom of a larger problem: a deeply flawed centralized church management structure. There are no effective intermediaries between the world's 2,700 dioceses (or their equivalents) and Rome.

Writes Orsy: "They all report to the Holy See -- only. No matter what the administrative apparatus of the Holy See is -- and it is relatively small -- it cannot provide preventive control. By way of comparison, imagine a worldwide corporation with 2,700 local branches and with no intermediate controlling stations between them and the center, which has a relatively small staff. If something does not make good sense in a well-administered human community, it is not likely to be suitable for the fledgling Kingdom of God that is the church."

Bottom line: "The universal church has outgrown its structural and organizational framework created in different times and finds itself now with a dangerous vacuum in supervision." Today, says Orsy, "the only person who reports on the state of the diocese is the bishop himself."

The remedy? Orsy proposes a system of "friendly visitation" based on the model used by American universities. The bishops, says Orsy, could establish small inter-diocesan teams of "trusted persons" who would visit a diocese, talk to key officials, and issue a report of their findings.

If such a system had been in place, says Orsy, "these [sexual abuse] problems would have been known long ago. If a person comes in and people know they can talk to him, and the priests know they can talk to him, then many problems will come to the surface that are today easily covered over."

Further, "If the bishops wanted to introduce such a 'fraternal service,' there is nothing in canon law to stop them, and much in church tradition to encourage them."

As for the credibly-accused but innocent priests?

There's little reassurance received from the Norms' guarantee that "every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the person falsely accused."


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