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Independent canon law group founded

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Priests and deacons who fear they cannot be adequately represented by diocesan canon lawyers can now turn to a canon lawyer referral program called Justice for Priests and Deacons.

According to Fr. Michael Higgins, a San Diego canon lawyer, most diocesan canon lawyers work in the marriage tribunals of local dioceses and are employees of the diocese themselves. Therefore, they are often reluctant to take on cases which will put them at odds with their own employer, he said.

Higgins decided to create the new referral program to advise priests and deacons about their rights under canon law and to process and appeal cases. Higgins said he has 14 canon lawyers available through the Justice for Priests and Deacons Program.

While experts had differing assessments of the need for an independent referral program, they agreed that most priests and deacons are inadequately informed about their rights under canon law.

Deacon Tom Welch, head of the National Association of Diaconate Directors, told NCR in a phone interview that he has received no reports of deacons complaining that they had been treated unjustly by a local bishop. “I’m not saying it doesn’t happen; I just haven’t heard about it,” Welch said

Fr. Don Wolf, director of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, hailed the availability of an independent referral program. Most priests, he said, are not aware of their own rights under canon law. “We are concerned, particularly where sexual wrongdoing is alleged, that there can be a rush to judgment,” Wolf said. “There’s some sense that you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

Wolf, whose office represents about 20,000 priests in 113 dioceses, noted that canon lawyers employed by a diocese may face repercussions if they decide to represent or even advise a priest or deacon who has been accused of wrongdoing by the bishop.

Fr. Patrick Cogan, executive coordinator for the Canon Law Society of America, agreed that diocesan canon lawyers can face a potential conflict of interest. “It would be better to locate a consultant who is not involved in the local diocese,” he said.

Cogan also agreed that priests and deacons could benefit from more information about their rights under canon law.

Higgins said the new program should not be construed as an attack on dioceses. “We see it as a service,” he said. “It’s important for priests and deacons to be aware of their rights and that certain procedures and processes must be followed under canon law when accusations are made. All too often, they are not provided this information, and, as a result, they may not be justly treated.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998