Lawyer: Be Fair to Priests
Defense: a Canon Attorney Says Clerics Often Are Denied Due Process in Sex-Abuse Investigations

By Michael Fisher
Press Enterprise [Riverside CA]
July 30, 2004

As Catholics agonize over ongoing allegations of sexual abuse targeting some clergy, a former Inland priest turned activist, Michael Higgins, argues that the rights of good clerics nationwide are being trampled, destroying their lives and careers.

"When an allegation is made, whatever it is, a bishop is supposed to follow a canonical process," the San Diego area canon lawyer said, referring to the body of laws governing the Catholic Church. "In most cases, that is not being followed. In most cases, you are guilty until proven innocent."

Higgins is the executive director of Justice for Priests and Deacons, a San Diego-based nonprofit group of 90 canonists dedicated to defending the rights of clergy accused of sexual misconduct, embezzlement or other wrongdoing. Formed in 1997, the group has advised 300 to 400 clergy accused of transgressions, including four Inland-area clerics.

Higgins said he could not discuss details of the four Inland cases. Higgins - whom Diocese of San Diego officials say was removed from the priesthood due to an allegation of misconduct, which he denies - argues that accused priests are not advised of their rights under canon law and are not receiving due process.

Under a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse adopted by U.S. bishops in 2002, a single accusation can cast a priest's reputation and career into ruin, according to Higgins and the Rev. Nicholas Rachford, the group's secretary and a priest in Lorain, Ohio.

"There is no one size that fits all for that," Rachford said of the policy. "And when there is an admitted incident 30 or 40 years ago and nothing since, is that priest really a threat? If there is a true reform of life and there is not a realistic danger he would molest children, it would be contrary to our canonical tradition to remove him permanently."


But diocesan officials and victims' advocates argue otherwise.

The Rev. Howard Lincoln, spokesman for the Diocese of San Bernardino, said if a preliminary church investigation finds an allegation of sexual misconduct to be credible, the diocese must remove the accused priest from public ministry pending a full investigation.

"It must appear that there is a reasonable possibility that part of the allegation may be true, and only then is the priest placed on a leave of absence," Lincoln said. He is unaware of any case in which Higgins' group contacted his diocese, which encompasses both Inland counties.

When on leave, an accused priest receives his full salary and benefits, and is advised of his rights, Lincoln said.

Monsignor Steven Callahan, vicar general of the San Diego Diocese, said dioceses are acting prudently when they remove accused priests under the sexual-abuse policy adopted two years ago. "It's part of our law," said Callahan, also a canon lawyer.

He said the San Diego Diocese follows canon law, adding "by and large, (priests') rights are being observed elsewhere as well."

Virtually every bishop in the country disagrees with Higgins' group, not to mention victims, victims' advocates, prosecutors and most Catholics, argues David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

Clohessy said priests, like police officers and teachers, must be suspended when a credible allegation of misconduct is submitted.

Higgins said accused priests often are removed from their jobs as investigations drag on for months, and clerics, like everybody, have the right to defend themselves.

"What in the name of God is a credible allegation?" said Higgins, who served as a priest in Corona, Riverside, Lake Arrowhead and Chino during parts of the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

"There is no criteria that has ever been laid down. There is no other profession where this is going on."

Higgins describes himself as retired. But Callahan, vicar general of the San Diego Diocese, said Higgins was removed from the priesthood by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in March 1999 in a decision confirmed by Pope John Paul II after Higgins was accused of soliciting sex in a confessional.

"This decision of the Holy See is not subject to recourse or appeal," Callahan said.

Higgins called the accusation false, saying it has nothing to do with his group's work. "I'm still a monsignor, and I am still very active," he said.


Between 1950 and 2002, sexual-abuse accusations were leveled against 4,392 priests, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. About 700 accused Catholic priests and deacons have been removed from ministry since January 2002.

Rachford said that Justice for Priests and Deacons gives advice to clergy, or furnishes priests with passages of canon law specific to their situation, which they can share with their bishop. In some instances, a lawyer from the group will attend a canonical hearing with an accused priest, acting as a secular attorney would in advising a defendant at trial.

In the past two years, the number of clergy contacting the group has grown, said Rachford, who estimated that most of his cases have involved priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Rachford said canon law bars a bishop from suspending a priest and forcing him to the leave the rectory without a minimal amount of due process and, "beyond that, you can't leave a priest without a means of a decent livelihood.

"A bishop who thinks he can just send a priest off packing and wash his hands of it, that can't happen. It shouldn't happen," Rachford said.

The group advertises in a national Catholic periodical and maintains a Web site. The organization accepts contributions to cover travel and incidental costs, Rachford said, adding that the canonists generally don't charge fees to priests and deacons.

"We have got some flak, but we know what we are doing is right," Higgins said.


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