Vatican Alters Rules for Disciplining Priests
By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
October 13, 1995
In a case with international implications for how the Catholic church responds to priests who molest minors, the Vatican's highest court has declared that Pittsburgh Bishop Donald W. Wuerl acted properly when he banned an accused child molester from ministry.
The decision of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura represents a stunning reversal of an earlier high-court ruling that had rocked the Catholic church. Canon lawyers compare the about-face to the U.S. Supreme Court taking the same case back and reversing its own decision.
The earlier ruling had said that a priest had to be insane before he could be removed from ministry on mental health grounds, and had ordered Wuerl to reinstate the accused priest, the Rev. Anthony Cipolla. The new decision, which could have bearing on hundreds of sexual molestation cases in the U.S. alone, gives bishops much more leeway to deal with sexually abusive priests.
Bishops nationwide will breathe a sigh of relief, said the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and writer who has criticized the church's handling of priests who sexually abuse minors.
The earlier ruling "put a severe limitation on their ability to deal with the problem," Greeley said. Many bishops and cardinals have taken their complaints about the original ruling to Rome, he said.
"This will make it a lot easier in this country and around the world to deal with it," he noted.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained a copy of the nine-page Latin verdict from a source unconnected to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
The case has a long and complicated history. In 1978, Cipolla was arrested and charged with molesting a 9-year-old boy in the North Side parish where he then served. But the boy's mother withdrew the charges.
Ten years later, another young man filed a civil suit, saying Cipolla had molested him throughout his teen-age years at another parish. Wuerl immediately removed Cipolla from ministry and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. That evaluation recommended that Wuerl send Cipolla to a psychiatric hospital near Philadelphia for treatment. Cipolla refused to go and Wuerl then forbade him to represent himself as a priest in good standing.
Cipolla appealed to the Vatican, whose highest court, the Signatura, ruled in his favor in March 1993. But after Wuerl immediately filed for a rehearing, Cipolla remained banned from ministry. Over Cipolla's protests, the diocese settled the civil lawsuit against him out of court in the fall of 1993.
Cipolla, who maintains his innocence, insists he is not banned and has continued to lead prayer groups and pilgrimages around the country and overseas. In February 1994, he concelebrated a nationally televised Mass on the Catholic cable channel EWTN. He's now in Ireland, and has many supporters among ultra-conservative Catholics.
Reached yesterday, Wuerl said he hoped he could reach a "pastoral" resolution of the matter with Cipolla.
"I have written to (Cipolla) now that the litigation is over, inviting him to come and meet with me," Wuerl said.
He has not yet received a response. Cipolla is still banned from even wearing a Roman collar in public "and (that prohibition) remains until I am able to make a judgment otherwise," Wuerl said.
Cipolla's supporters blasted Wuerl.
"This is a bishop who is obsessed with persecuting a very simple, very good priest. He is so obsessed that there is something psychologically wrong with him. He is the one who ought to be psychologically evaluated," said the Rev. Nevin Hammon, a canon lawyer from Syracuse, N.Y., who has served as an adviser to Cipolla.
Both Hammon and Charles Wilson, another of Cipolla's advisers, accused Wuerl of pulling strings at the Vatican, where Wuerl worked for 10 years.
"I thought this sort of maneuvering and deception ended with the departure of the Medicis and the Borgias," said Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation, which helps American Catholics with canonical cases.
Hammon and Wilson said they hoped a compromise would be reached, such as allowing Cipolla to have a ministry that does not involve children while he undergoes outpatient treatment.
"I do not think Bishop Wuerl should say 'You must go to (the hospital near Philadelphia). That is a funny farm. Father Cipolla is not insane. Somehow there are many bishops who think they own their priests, body and soul. When you go into clinical therapy, you are revealing your very inner self. Not even the pope can (force you to) do that," Hammon said.
But where the safety of children is concerned, bishops say that psychiatric evaluations are the only tool they have. Such evaluations are intended to help the priest, said Jason Berry, a journalist who first exposed the serious problems with pedophilia in the Catholic church.
Most importantly, "the bishop has to be suitably informed so he can make a decision that won't put parishioners and young children at risk," Berry said.
Hammon argued that the latest decision of the Signatura did not ban Cipolla from ministry.
But the ban is implicit in the fact that the Signatura approved the reasons and procedure the bishop used to ban Cipolla, said the Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, vicar for canonical services of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
DiNardo called the new ruling a good decision on a sad subject.
Such rehearings by the Signatura are so rare that "there have probably been less than four or five in this century," he said.
The ruling means that the canon dealing with mentally ill priests, which had previously been given a very narrow interpretation, is now open to much broader use, DiNardo said. In order to reach this ruling, the Signatura asked another Vatican office, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legal Texts, to give a clarification of the canonical term "psychic defect."
"If there is anything that stands in the way of providing for the salvation of souls, not just on account of insanity but ... because of ... some general mental disorder, it can constitute an impediment to the exercise of the ministry of clerics," the new decision said.
Berry called the verdict a step forward.
"I think this shows that they are inching toward the real world," he said of the Vatican. "I take it as a sign that they realize the original decision lacked not only intelligence but the sort of moral weight one would assume the Vatican would bring to bear on a situation like this one."
Bishop Anthony Bosco of the Diocese of Greensburg called it the first indication that the Vatican regards criminal sexual behavior as an ongoing illness that can't just be forgiven and forgotten.
"There seems to be an admission that this kind of behavior is not just a moral lapse," he said.
In order to reverse itself, the Signatura concluded that it did not have all the pertinent facts when it made the first ruling. For instance, it was unaware that there was litigation pending against Cipolla at the time. It was also unaware that the mother of the boy in the 1978 case had given a deposition in the 1988 lawsuit.
In his original appeal to the Signatura, Cipolla's canon lawyer had said that the mother had mistakenly thought Cipolla had given her son a physical examination when he had given the boy a quiz to prepare for his first communion. But a detective report from 1978 turned up, in which Cipolla told detectives that the child had been naked on his bed because he was giving him a physical examination to spare the family the expense of sending the boy to a doctor.
According to the Signatura, Cipolla also told a similar story to a diocesan investigator. Furthermore, the mother gave a sworn deposition, in which she said she dropped the charges under pressure from the pastor, the late Bishop Vincent Leonard, and Cipolla's attorney. The decision appears to accept the mother's version of events, however, the pastor at the time, the Rev. Joseph Newell, told the Post-Gazette he never pressured the family.
"This whole case has been peculiar from the outset," Berry said.
"I don't know of any place else in the country where a priest has tried to refuse the medical treatment that a bishop has justifiably wanted him to get."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.