Pope Francis and the Zen of dialogue

The Pillar [Washington DC]

September 16, 2022

By Ed. Condon

Happy Friday friends,

And a happy feast of Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, both of whom are remembered by the Church for their third-century defense of the faith, and witness to the Gospel in the face of imperial persecution.

Cyprian, a lawyer from Carthage, survived the persecution of the emperor Decius, but under Valerian found himself first exiled, then arrested.

Notably, his trial is remembered for its faultless procedure, and the calm and courtesy displayed by all sides as he was convicted and executed. A witness, if you will, to dialogue in the truest Christian sense.

Anyway, here’s the news.

The News

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, like some other U.S. dioceses, has been in bankruptcy court since 2020, seeking Chapter 11 protection while it restructures to deal with a wave of historical clerical abuse lawsuits filed in the wake of the scandals of 2018.

But the case has taken a few turns which make it different from other bankruptcy proceedings.

In New Orleans, a federal judge has issued orders preventing the diocese from paying priests their monthly stipends if they have been accused of abuse.

Instead, the priests have been told they need to get in line for payment behind the other archdiocesan creditors, including their alleged victims. This is – as JD and I wrote about this week – very odd, for a number of reasons.

In the first place, it is not at all clear where a judge in a federal bankruptcy court gets the authority to, in effect, decide which diocesan clergy can be paid and which not.

I am not an expert in American law, but I talked with a few people who are, and none of them could figure it out either.

Set aside the understandable emotional response we all have to the subject of accusations of abuse — it is not obvious how the judge has the power to single out clerics who have not been found guilty of any civil crime or canonical delict and say, in effect, that they are banned from being paid.

If nothing else, the matter raises real questions about due process and a person’s right to a legal defense.

And it gets more complicated.

Bishops are required by canon law to provide for the “decent support” of all their incardinated clerics, including accused priests — this isn’t an option, it’s an obligation Rome has insisted on. In the New Orleans case, the judge has basically told the archdiocese it may not conduct itself in accordance with Church law. This seems, to me at least, to raise some possible First Amendment issues.

The case also raises, or rather re-raises, questions about the nature and prudence of dioceses publishing lists of “credibly accused” clerics, which often encompass everything from instances where a priest has admitted to the abuse, to cases where the accusation is simply found to be plausible. It also raises the real problems with dioceses maintaining entire cadres of “unassignable” priests who have been accused but neither found guilty by a formal canonical process nor laicized.

The archdiocese told us it is “evaluating” the judge’s orders, and declined to comment further. It has a lot to evaluate — as do other dioceses in similar circumstances.

Read our whole analysis here.