Secrecy Shrouds Priest's Church Trial Here

By Cathleen Falsani
Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago IL]
May 21, 2004

The first of what could be as many as 12 secret church trials of Roman Catholic priests from the Chicago archdiocese accused of sexual misconduct with minors is under way.

Sometime after the first of the year, a special tribunal of three canon law judges began its formal inquiry into the alleged sex abuse offenses by a priest whose name cannot be released because of the "pontifical secret," a kind of ecclesiastical gag order from the Vatican that forbids anyone involved in the trial to publicly disclose its details, said the Rev. Daniel Smilanic, adjutant vicar for the Chicago archdiocese and a canon law expert familiar with the trial that is under way.

The pontifical secret is meant to protect the rights and privacy of the accused and the accuser, as well as the canon lawyers involved in the trial who may or may not be priests, Smilanic said.

Twelve priests have been removed from ministry by the Chicago archdiocese since June 2002, when new church law mandated that all priests with even a single credible allegation of abuse against a child be removed from ministry. Each of those men could face a church trial to determine whether their removal from ministry will be permanent and even if they will be thrown out of the priesthood altogether.

Archdiocesan officials said they could not specify how many Chicago priests are awaiting trials.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which represents all 195 dioceses in the nation, said she did not know whether church trials for priests accused of sex abuse were under way in other dioceses. More than 700 priests have been removed from ministry nationally amid accusations of sexual misconduct with minors since January 2002.

About six months ago, the Archdiocese of Chicago received word from Rome, in the form of a letter called a libellus (Latin for "little book"), setting out the grounds for the trial, the charge and potential penalties, in this case up to and including defrocking, Smilanic said.

The charge in this case is known as "the doubt" or "the question." A church trial must be completed within a year, Smilanic said.

Catholic Church trials are more like a grand jury investigation than a public trial before a jury or judge.

There is no set location, and it can move from place to place. "Most people would have the idea that this would appear like the trial of Thomas More in the movie 'A Man for All Seasons,' where you had three guys in red and ermine up on a dais and Catherine Queen of England come into the court," Smilanic said. "It's not like that."

The case against a priest is presented by the "promoter of justice" and is heard by a panel of three judges brought in from other jurisdictions, he said.

Witnesses may or may not appear in person before the tribunal. Testimony may be submitted by deposition, taken by the judges themselves or by an "auditor," often a lay person who volunteers to take witness testimony in the presence of a notary. The accused is never present for the testimony of his accuser.

Neither the "promoter of justice" nor the defense attorney may ask questions directly of witnesses.

The accused priest, who is not required to testify on his own behalf, is represented by his own canon lawyer, who sees all the evidence and submits his or her defense in writing. In the trial that is under way, the defense attorney is a female canon lawyer from out of state, Smilanic said.

There is a presumption of innocence for the accused.

Rather than a preponderance of the evidence or reasonable doubt, the burden of proof in a church trial is "moral certitude," which Smilanic described as "standing before God morally, what sort of decision, based on all the material, would the judge in good conscience make?"

The three judges issue one opinion together and impose a penalty. Their decision may be appealed to the Vatican.