e-mail us

Church in Crisis

Norms concern order leaders


A last-minute move to include religious order priests in the sex abuse norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in November potentially violates the autonomy of religious life, according to a stance adopted by both the American and the international umbrella groups for men’s orders in the Catholic church.

In part, the orders fear being forced into a rigid zero-tolerance policy. Last August the orders backed the bishops’ commitment to permanent removal of abusers from public ministry, but left open the possibility that such a priest could be treated and returned to an assignment within the community itself.

At the same time, spokespersons for the orders took pains to stress their “complete agreement” with the goal of protecting children from abuse, and insisted they do not want to create a public confrontation between bishops and religious.

The concerns were voiced Nov. 31 at a Rome assembly of the Union of Superiors General, the worldwide umbrella group for men’s orders, and in Vatican meetings in early December with representatives of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the American federation of men’s orders. On Dec. 1, the worldwide group voted to give full backing to the position taken by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

The objection raised by religious order priests illustrates the complexities that can arise in enforcing the norms agreed to by the bishops in Washington last month. In addition to the autonomy issue, the superiors of religious orders have raised questions about the need for national standards for enforcing the norms.

The top officers of the American federation, Conventual Franciscan Fr. Canice Connors, president, and Marist Fr. Ted Keating, executive director, came to Rome to present their objections as the Vatican moves toward granting a recognitio, or formal legal approval, to the American norms.

Worries voiced by Connors and Keating include that diocesan bishops might try to compel superiors to divulge confidential information on priests or might seek to block even an internal assignment with the order or to revoke a priest’s authorization to say Mass, even within the community. Some bishops may also seek to prevent international members from entering the United States. In addition, religious communities generally do not have canonical tribunals as dioceses do, hence it’s not entirely clear how religious superiors are to proceed with cases against their members.

Religious order priests were not covered by the norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in Dallas in June. However, when the norms were revised by a joint U.S./Vatican “mixed commission,” religious priests were included through a little-noticed change in the document’s first footnote. Leaders in religious life discovered the switch only on Nov. 5, prompting urgent requests for dialogue with the U.S. bishops and an appeal to the Vatican.

In 2001 there were 30,655 diocesan priests in the United States and 15,386 religious order priests. Well-known orders include the Franciscans and the Jesuits.

Connors stressed that the concerns do not amount to a challenge to the protection of children.

“Please understand that in no way are we bringing into question anything at all about the suffering of the victims or the terrible crime of sex abuse,” Connors said.

Keating described independence as the “key issue.”

“Much as the bishops would like to say there’s only one authority in the United States, only one set of norms, to speak honestly out of the Code of Canon Law the religious ordinaries have a legitimate autonomy of their own,” he said. He pointed to Canon 586.1, which promises a “true autonomy of life” to religious orders.

That autonomy, the leaders say, has historically allowed them to play a prophetic role in the church, taking stands that would be difficult if the orders were under the direct control of diocesan bishops.

Connors told the Union of Superiors General that he and Keating learned while visiting the bishops’ Web site that the norms as revised by the “mixed commission” included religious order priests. A sentence had been added to the first footnote reading: “In applying these norms to religious priests and deacons, mutatis mutandis, the term ‘religious ordinary’ shall be substituted for the term ‘bishop/eparch.’ ”

This happened, Connors said, without consultation with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men or other leaders of religious communities.

Connors said he then wrote to Belleville, Ill., Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, requesting urgent dialogue. That led, he said, to a Nov. 10 meeting with Cardinal Francis George, the senior American participant in the mixed commission. George heard the concerns but did not propose changes to the norms that went before the U.S. bishops for a vote on Nov. 13. He did allow Connors and Keating to include a set of proposed revisions in materials submitted to the Vatican as part of the review process.

Vatican sources told NCR that while the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, the office that deals with religious orders, is generally sympathetic to the concerns raised by Connors and Keating, additional revisions to the norms are unlikely for the moment. The Vatican would prefer to await the two-year review already called for by the U.S. bishops.

Connors and Keating drew an appreciative response in their session with the Union of Superiors General. One superior general said he had been contacted by U.S. diocesan priests to express gratitude for the stand taken by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in Philadelphia in August, when it was decided that priest abusers would be removed from public ministry but not necessarily from their communities.

“We simply told the public that we could not suddenly tell you that there’s some sin or some act that is beyond conversion, beyond repentance, for which we will throw men out without further conversation,” Keating said at the Union of Superiors General meeting.

“Our position is that we have all the authority we need to preserve the integrity of our members,” Connors said.

Given that changes in the norms are unlikely in the short term, Connors said that he and Keating met with 15 U.S. bishops Nov. 14 and elicited an agreement for a commission, to be composed of four bishops and four representatives of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, to develop a national protocol for dealing with these issues.

Keating said that different bishops are sending different signals. In Cincinnati, for example, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk initially requested data on all priests with accusations, then changed course after speaking with religious superiors and consulting with attorneys. Keating said that Pilarczyk explained that if he had the information it could be subpoenaed. He added that possession of such records might increase a diocese’s civil liability.

“Picture the confusion all over the United States, as we deal with this bishop by bishop and committee by committee,” Keating said. “That’s why we’re so concerned.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002