Priests' Rights, Policy at Odds
Board Calls for Legal Consistency in Abuse Cases
By Geneive Abdo
March 29, 2004
[Note from BishopAccountability.org: We have redacted
this cached copy of the original article after reviewing the court file
and other sources. Square brackets indicate locations where we have removed
a total of six words that appeared in the text of the original article.]
BOSTON -- Now that the Catholic Church has taken steps after years of
inaction to purge itself of abusive priests, canon lawyers, church officials
and other experts are beginning to voice a new concern: The legal rights
of accused priests are being slighted.
In some cases priests are forced to leave their parishes even before the
abuse allegations are investigated. These men have little hope their cases
will go to trial swiftly, in large part because of a logjam at the Vatican
as it processes mountains of paperwork.
As a result, members of the National Review Board--the watchdog group
commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops--are calling for
uniform regulations that would protect priests' legal rights.
"There will be some priests who are accused who are innocent,"
said Anne Burke, the Illinois Appellate Court judge who chairs the board.
"Priests throughout the country should have uniform justice and due
At the same time, some experts note that the Vatican may be reconsidering
the American church's approach to dealing with sex abuse--particularly
its zero-tolerance policy, under which any priest found to have committed
abuse is removed without exception.
For years many Catholic bishops had put a priority on protecting priests
and the church, fueling outrage when it became clear that some priests
were allowed to molest children repeatedly. Now, as they try to appease
the public by cracking down on priests, the bishops have gone to the other
extreme, critics argue.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted rules in 2002 on how diocesan
officials should handle allegations of sex abuse. Review boards appointed
by dioceses are to investigate the allegations, and canonical trials determine
whether the priests are guilty.
The Catholic Church has its own legal system and a cadre of canon lawyers,
who are specialists in the rules governing the faith and practices of
the church. The church trials, however, differ from those in criminal
or civil courts. They are not held on a specific day; instead, information
is gathered over time before a verdict is reached.
Some review board members and experts now say that some dioceses are failing
to comply with the spirit of the guidelines approved in 2002.
"There is great disparity in how these cases are being handled from
one diocese to another," said Nicholas Cafardi, the only canon lawyer
on the board.
The rules state "all appropriate steps shall be taken to protect
the reputation of the accused during the investigation," but they
provide no specifics. The priest also is to be removed from his parish
only "when there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor
When an accusation is filed in Chicago, the archdiocese notifies the priest
and places him under monitoring. He is not removed from a parish until
a review board composed of three clerics and six lay people determine
if the accusation is substantive enough to make him a threat to children
Forced to go on leave
But in Boston--the epicenter of the sex scandal--and many other dioceses,
many priests are forced to take an administrative leave as soon as any
accusation is registered and before an investigation is conducted.
For Rev. Roger Jacques, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Waltham, Mass.,
the call from the archdiocese came unexpectedly in October 2002. A 31-year-old
woman had accused him of molesting [two words redacted]
her 20 years earlier when he was at a different parish.
"I was called to a meeting and told that a woman had accused me of
sexual molestation, but I didn't recognize her name," said Jacques,
51. "I was told to leave my parish that afternoon."
Jacques, who had been pastor of St. Joseph since 1995, has continued to
receive his $1,500 monthly salary from the church and a monthly stipend
of $800 for housing and food. Since he was dismissed, he has taken jobs
delivering papers and gardening for extra money.
"If you are an accused priest, you are treated like a leper. You
are to be put out of sight," he said at his family's home.
James O'Brien, Jacques' lawyer, said it is unfair to suspend anyone from
his job until the charges are investigated and found to be credible.
Priests "are waiting for someone to reach a conclusion, and in the
meantime their reputations are damaged," O'Brien said.
Officials of the Boston archdiocese declined to discuss the allegations
against Jacques. His case was sent to the Vatican, indicating the allegations
were deemed credible, and the Vatican has directed the archdiocese to
begin the trial process.
A lawsuit the woman filed against Jacques states that in 1982 he "engaged
in explicit sexual behavior and lewd lascivious behavior" with her
when she was 11 [four words redacted]. She
was given a settlement from the Boston archdiocese in that case as well
as a second settlement based on charges she lodged against another priest,
said her lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian.
Garabedian said he believes it is just that Jacques, or any priest accused
of sexual abuse, be removed from his parish immediately because of the
potential harm to children.
"It is wise to be cautious," he said. "You have a choice
of letting an alleged pedophile work with children, and if a child is
molested, the harm is irreparable."
Advocacy groups for victims alleging sexual abuse agree.
"Given the severity of the crime, we simply have to protect kids,"
said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those
Abused by Priests. "No process is perfect."
Amy Strickland, a canon lawyer for the Boston archdiocese, said the need
to protect children is one reason behind the policy of instantly removing
accused priests. Another is public anger at the way the church spent decades
ignoring complaints by victims and protecting priests.
"Priests are now paying the price for what the church did. Now, there
is a presumption of guilt for all priests accused of sex crimes,"
she said. "I am sorry this is the case. It is an imperfect system,
but I don't know right now how to do any better than we are doing."
In recent years, charges against some priests have been withdrawn. In
March 1994, a man who had accused former Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin
of sexual abuse in the 1970s dropped the accusation. And last week, Rev.
Thomas White was reinstated to his Wheaton parish after an Aurora man
dropped a sexual abuse lawsuit.
Burke, of the National Review Board, said the board should draft specific
instructions for all dioceses and archdioceses to follow when dealing
with the accused priests.
"There need to be uniform regulations so that when an accusation
comes in, the dioceses follow procedures on what should happen next,"
she said. "We have learned as a review board over the last 20 months
that there are inconsistencies from one diocese to another."
Canon law experts said it's uncertain if the review board--which was commissioned
to analyze the scope and causes of the sex scandal and to monitor dioceses'
compliance with the Catholic bishops' charter--can influence local bishops
to comply with such regulations.
Rev. Robert Silva, head of the National Federation of Priests' Councils,
said local bishops have always operated in a largely independent manner.
"According to the way the church is structured, each bishop is autonomous,"
Silva said. "The bishops should follow the norms and codes of Dallas
and the spirit of the norms, but some don't. . . . So the issues of justice
and due process get compromised."
`Failing to protect' priests
Rev. Ladislas Orsy, one of the country's leading experts in canon law,
argued recently in the Boston Law Review that it defies common sense that
there is no common policy for dioceses to follow when dealing with abuse
"Such an obviously deficient approach can be explained only by the
extreme concern of the Conference [of Catholic Bishops] not to trespass
on the jurisdiction of the individual bishops," Orsy wrote.
In an interview, Orsy was more blunt: "In protecting themselves,
the bishops are failing to protect the priests."
Even in cases where investigations are complete, a vast majority of the
trials have yet to be scheduled. O'Brien said among his many clients who
are priests accused of abuse, only Jacques has received notice from the
Vatican that the process leading to a trial has begun.
Experts say the enormous volume of cases has overwhelmed the Vatican,
causing a logjam in determining which cases should go to trial.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the delay is a serious problem.
"I wish the process could be more expeditious," he said. "I
am embarrassed by it. I have gone to the Vatican and said, `Deal with
our cases quickly.' But you have three to five experts in the Vatican
dealing with all these cases."
Rev. Daniel A. Smilanic, a canon lawyer for the Chicago archdiocese, said
another contributing factor is the church's lack of experience with the
"Part of the difficulty of applying canon law is that canon law is
being asked to respond to questions it didn't have to before," Smilanic
He also said that in recent weeks experts commissioned by the Vatican
issued a report critical of the zero-tolerance policy.
"There is unease at the Vatican," said Smilanic. "Zero
tolerance is one size fits all. And is that smart? It implies that all
cases are identical, yet we know they are different."
At Jacques' parish, the pastor's removal has sparked conflicting emotions
in the congregation: disillusionment with the church over the abuse crisis
and sadness that their priest might not return.
"His loss is more than the loss of a person," said Barbara Saulnier,
85, verging on tears.
"I am an old woman. I went to Catholic schools and we were told:
`Pray, pray. Obey, obey,'" she said. "The church was looked
upon as correct. You obeyed the nuns. You obeyed the priests. But I don't
think that anymore."
Priscilla Parent, a parishioner who works at the parish rectory, said
the archdiocese gave the church little chance to tell parishioners that
Jacques had been removed.
"We had only a few hours to notify parishioners before it was on
the 5 o'clock news," Parent said. "Even now when I talk about
it, the feeling of injustice rises up again. It is not good to treat him
or any human being that way."