Rehabilitating a disgraced priest: a thought-experiment
By Phil Lawler
April 26, 2016
After it emerged that a priest with a history of sexual abuse is serving as a pastor, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City is “assessing the situation.” With all respect to Archbishop Coakley—for whom I have generally had a high opinion—I think he should be assessing himself. In light of this case, actually all the American bishops should be assessing themselves. Because what happened in Oklahoma illustrates why so many people believe—rightly, I would argue—that their bishops still don’t “get it.”
When the news first came out, Archbishop Coakley issued a statement explaining why he thought it was reasonable to assign Father José DaVila to a parish, five years after the Venezuelan-born priest had entered a guilty plea to charges of groping a young woman in California. He said that the priest understood that his behavior had been “inappropriate,” and “accepts the consequences of his lapse of judgment.” He said that the Oklahoma City archdiocese had investigated the priest thoroughly, including “lengthy interviews with leaders from dioceses in which Father DaVila has served.” (Notice the plural: dioceses; this priest has bounced around a bit.) And he emphasized that Father DaVila, like all others serving in the Oklahoma City archdiocese, would be bound by a strict code of behavior.
What’s wrong with that statement? Let me count the ways.
First let me acknowledge the difficulties with this case, and virtually every other case of alleged sexual abuse. We do not know the particular circumstances of the incident that prompted the criminal complaint. Maybe this was not a clear-cut assault; maybe there was some misunderstanding. Maybe the young woman is not entirely innocent in this case. Maybe Father DaVila was persuaded to enter a guilty plea in order to avoid a long, ugly criminal trial. It is regrettably true that some priests have been strongly advised by diocesan leaders to accept a plea-bargaining deal, even when they have insisted on their innocence. That is an injustice, because a priest who pleads guilty to sexual misconduct forfeits his own reputation. If you tell the judge that you are guilty of a sex crime, you cannot expect parishioners to think you’re innocent.
Archbishop Coakley, in his statement, mentioned that the complaint against Father DaVila involved “an adult parishioner.” Thus the offense didn’t come under the “zero tolerance” terms of the Dallas Charter. Actually the victim was 19. If she had been 18 months younger the priest might have been barred from ministry for life. In establishing the Dallas Charter, the US bishops were forced to define their terms, and settled on the age of 18 to distinguish abuse of children from consensual activity with an adult. But there is no bright line at the age of 18. Under the terms of canon law, misconduct involving a 19-year-old victim is a completely different offense from misconduct involving a 17-year-old. Under the rules of common sense, the offenses are very similar. If they want to recover public trust, American bishops must recognize that clerical dalliances with young adults, male or female, should be treated as instances of “sexual abuse.”
In the Oklahoma case, as in many others, the archbishop assured the public that the accused priest has recognized his actions as “inappropriate.” Do you find that reassuring? Wouldn’t it be more persuasive to hear that the priest had acknowledged his behavior as sinful, done penance, and pleaded for forgiveness?
Finally, and most importantly, Archbishop Coakley issued his public explanation after the news about Father DaVila’s past history had become public. Imagine how different this case would be, if the whole story had been explained to parishioners before the priest was assigned!
How would you react if your bishop showed up in your parish some Sunday morning, and made an announcement something like this:
I have come here today to ask you to accept the assignment of a priest who is trying to recover from a troubled past. Father X was accused, five years ago, of a crime involving his relationship with a young person. He admitted his guilt, and submitted to the justice of the criminal court. He has also confessed his sin, and completed an assignment to six months of strict penance, which I assigned to him.
He is a sinner: like you and like me. I am asking you to accept his service as a priest in this parish, and to help him as he reforms his life.
Toward that end, I have asked your pastor, Father Y, to supervise him carefully, and to choose five laymen from the congregation—men who are known as active parishioners, good family men, known for their integrity and sound judgment—to meet with him and with your pastor regularly, and send me reports about his performance.
I will be happy to answer your questions about Father X today. Then I will ask you to reflect on my request, to pray about it, and to give me your response next week.
Would you accept the priest under those terms? I would, if…
…I felt sure I could trust the bishop.
And y'know what? If I heard a bishop address me in those terms, I'd be much more likely to trust him.