Bishop Vs. Vatican
The Case for Suspending Priests Accused of Sexual Abuse
March 24, 1993
A dramatic difference of opinion has developed between Pittsburgh's Roman Catholic bishop and a Vatican court over the bishop's treatment of a priest accused of sexual misconduct.
Bishop Donald W. Wuerl had stripped the Rev. Anthony Cipolla of priestly privileges after he was accused in a civil lawsuit of having molested a teen- ager. But the Vatican court, known as the Signatura, found fault with Bishop Wuerl's handling of the situation and ordered the priest reinstated.
We don't pretend to have familiarity with the intricacies of Catholic canon law, nor would we prejudge the merits of the civil suit against Father Cipolla, expected to go to trial in May. (No criminal charges were filed against the priest in this matter.)
But at a time when the Catholic Church in America is reeling from accusations that it has covered up allegations of priestly sexual abuse, a ruling that a bishop may not remove an accused priest can only add to the church's credibility problem.
In ruling in favor of Father Cipolla, the Signatura concluded, among other findings, that Bishop Wuerl had not complied with proper procedures and that he misinterpreted a provision of church law allowing a bishop to move against a priest with a "psychic defect." The bishop apparently relied on an interpretation of that phrase that covers "personality disorders."
A spokesman says Bishop Wuerl will appeal the Signatura's ruling on the grounds that the court's decision "may have been based on some factual inaccuracies."
Meanwhile, Father Cipolla has been permitted to wear a clerical collar, but he will not be assigned to a position in the diocese until the civil suit is resolved. The priest's lawyer protests that the Vatican requires the bishop to go further and assign Father Cipolla to a parish or other diocesan facility.
Whether or not such a course is mandated by church law, it would be damaging for the church -- and might not be in the interests of the accused priest. As Michael Schwartz, a Catholic columnist, told the Post-Gazette: "Suspension is not a judgment of guilt. A good priest who is falsely accused needs it as protection for himself."
A Vatican policy that prevents bishops from suspending priests accused of sexual misconduct does no service to the American church, which belatedly has begun to confront the scandal of pastors who prey on the most innocent among their flocks.
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