What to Do About Sex Abuse in the Church?

Catholic World Report

March 28, 2014

By Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille

I confess that I really don’t want to talk about sex abuse in the Church again. But Pope Francis does, so perhaps we might help him and his newly appointed commission by taking a trip through some unexpected and ancient terrain.

I was at work on an article several summers ago about the vexed question of “canonical territory,” especially regarding Catholic-Orthodox relations in Ukraine and Russia. I never finished that article, in part because I am constitutionally prone to the sins of sloth and gluttony and decided that martinis and cigars in my backyard while reading books on totally unrelated topics were much more interesting activities, and so I fled from my computer to my chaise longue. But all was not lost: in my research for that article, and as penance for my sins of the flesh, I had forced myself to slog through every canon I could lay my hands on from local, provincial, regional, national, and ecumenical councils in both East and West. I was looking to see what, if anything, they said about questions of territory and jurisdiction.

I was not, in other words, looking for canons dealing with clerical discipline, but in my reading it quickly emerged that I could not avoid them, since it seems that almost every council ever held had to deal with clerical malfeasance in one form or other. Naughty priests are not new! Council after council seemed to have something to say about priests or bishops who commit offenses, especially those of the flesh—adultery, sodomy, and the abuse of minors. Again and again one thing was clear: clerics of any rank (including those in minor orders) who were guilty of any sexual sin at all were to be removed from office and never again allowed to hold any clerical office anywhere in the Church. This was a life sentence.

Another discovery staggered me: this penalty of permanent deposition was to be applied even to consensual sins involving adults. Thus if a priest was having a consensual affair with a woman in his parish, which both freely entered and willingly consummated, he was to be removed forever. Even if the woman did not want him punished—even if she had confessedly seduced him—he was still to be removed.

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