Secret Trials of Priests Won't Help Church Build Credibility

Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago IL]
May 23, 2004

The Roman Catholic Church has always struck a special balance between the openness of parishioners declaring their faith and the secrecy of them confessing their sins. But in trying priests charged with sexual abuses against minors, its tribunals operate exclusively in secrecy. At a time when so many people need to have their belief in the church restored, we wonder if that's the best approach.

The issue is raised by news that an ecclesiastic court recently began a formal inquiry into the alleged sexual misconduct of an unidentified priest from the Chicago archdiocese, the first of what may be a dozen such cases -- 12 being the number of Chicago priests removed from ministry for sexual abuses since 2002. The name of the accused priest, as well as the names of the tribunal's three judges and even the location of the hearing, fall under the strictures of a "pontifical secret." By forbidding the divulgence of details from these trials, the Vatican means to protect the rights of the accused and accuser.

That's an admirable goal, one that shares the basic "innocent until proven guilty" standard of civil law, which treats these abuse cases separately. But in the wake of a scandal that has led to the removal from ministry of about 700 priests nationwide, rocking the faithful and muddying the reputation of the church, shifting from a policy of containment to one of greater openness would be of benefit to everyone concerned. Cardinal Francis George, who has it in his power to ask the Vatican to waive the pontifical secret, would do well to consider that option.

We realize that may be asking a lot, considering that two years ago, when the church issued its new rules governing priests suspected of sexual abuse, it went out of its way to obscure their contents. They were issued in Latin in the Holy See's official gazette. Church leaders clued to their meaning in a letter were instructed not to talk about them.

Church officials may sense that the uproar over pedophile priests has calmed, but pained memories of church authorities sweeping accusations under the rug (most notoriously in Boston, where priests known to be abusers were moved from parish to parish in an effort to avoid bad publicity) and paying hush money to victims still give secrecy a bad name. By maintaining a cloak of secrecy around these proceedings, the church only invites people to associate them with past actions carried out in the dark.

There has been much talk about the church's need to re-establish or recharge its credibility and moral authority. One step in that direction would be to make these hearings public. Among other things, it would give those falsely accused a forum to publicly proclaim their innocence. For those who think a culture of secrecy contributed to the scandal, it would demonstrate that the church does not always have to have something to hide.