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Now it’s Rome’s turn on sex abuse charter

Many touted the U.S. bishops’ June meeting in Dallas as a watershed gathering, and in many ways it was. The bishops listened to victims, apologized eloquently for their mishandling of the crisis, heard strong critiques from laypeople and agreed on a stringent policy that they hoped would put them on a new footing with the public and the Catholic community.

The zero-tolerance policy adopted in June purchased some calm from protests and media criticism, but increasingly Catholics are asking: At what cost? Doubts about the justice of the Dallas solution, on both substantive and procedural levels, are multiplying.

Catholics are angry that the zero-tolerance policy has deprived some congregations of priests they considered long rehabilitated and trustworthy. Meanwhile new allegations keep arising. Priests increasingly distrust their bishops and some, accused and removed with no recourse to due process, are striking back and taking their cases on appeal to Rome.

Things are about to take another turn with the news, reported this week in NCR (see Page 8), that the Vatican wants a dialogue before it will approve the U.S. norms. Dallas, it turns out, was one frame in a motion picture whose conclusion we do not yet know.

So where do we go from here?

While we have spoken at length on this page about structural reform that is essential if the church is to deal long-term with not only this crisis but with other deficiencies the crisis has made apparent, a more immediate concern is the growing number of priests being removed from ministry because of accusations. The church must be fair to them while at the same time making sure that such concern does not further undermine the efforts of victims to bring abuse to light.

The Vatican and much of the canon law community in the United States have raised issues in this regard, some of which seem justified.

For starters, the description of “sexual abuse,” borrowed from the Canadian bishops and placed in the Dallas charter, is so broad it could include a number of actions or statements that might be inappropriate but hardly criminal and certainly not a basis for permanent removal from ministry. Under the standard of nonphysical “interactions,” for example, a priest who recommends the novel Lolita to a 17-year-old high school senior could be charged with abuse. (In theory he would have to have done so for motives of sexual gratification for this to count, but who’s to say?) One could argue for a “reasonable man” standard, that is, that reasonable people wouldn’t apply the description in such a way, but that raises the whole matter of who defines what’s reasonable.

There are cases in which one offense 30 years ago simply doesn’t seem a just basis for permanently removing a man from ministry. Canon law has long stressed the principle of proportionality, meaning that the punishment imposed must fit the crime committed. Mandatory sentencing policies inevitably gloss over the complexity of individual situations, and leave no room for mercy or redemption, the very values the church is supposed to incarnate. It certainly will be much more difficult now for the Catholic church in the United States to oppose harsh policies in the secular criminal justice system such as mandatory sentencing, including “three strikes and you’re out” rules, when we have brought them into our own house.

There is also concern about due process, since some priests accused under the Dallas norms have been placed on “administrative leave,” in effect suspended indefinitely without the safeguards envisioned in canon law being observed. False accusations have been leveled, and one injustice cannot be corrected with another. Imposing penalties without respecting the right to a fair defense does exactly that.

Officials in Rome also have difficulty with lay boards whose duties are ill defined. NCR has made clear that greater lay involvement -- serious involvement at the level of decision making -- is essential to any solution to this crisis. At the same time, it is confusing and possibly detrimental to lay involvement to have boards appointed and operating without clear mandates. It seems no one has clearly thought through what the national board will do, short of calling on public opinion to help right the wrongs it perceives.

Rome also has expressed understandable concern over the matter of confidentiality and bishops’ relationships with law-enforcement agencies. While in the past bishops have arguably been complicit in aiding and abetting criminal behavior, is it wise to go to the other extreme? Should every scrap of paper a bishop has on a priest be fair game just because someone makes an accusation, however unsubstantiated it may be? Certainly it is legitimate for the church to assert some kind of privacy for its personnel records, as other institutions in society do, turning them over, for example, only where there is a warrant (which means, at least in theory, that a charge has been determined to be credible).

It is no secret that more than a few U.S. bishops, including some who voted for the Dallas norms, are quietly hoping Rome will intervene because they feel the document, necessary to “stop the bleeding” at the time, is flawed.

Canon lawyers are almost unanimous in expressing reservations about the Dallas norms, largely because they abandon in significant ways the procedural rules laid down in the Code of Canon Law. It’s true that canon law is heavily weighted in favor of the accused, and perhaps some balancing is required. But jettisoning due process or embracing mandatory penalties that leave little room for discretion or mercy is not the answer.

Finally, there is still the unresolved question of accountability for the bishops themselves. Perhaps if clearer policies are in place to deal with accused priests, we can get around to the equally pressing question of how to hold bishops accountable.

The sexual abuse crisis both revealed and aggravated the tragic estrangement between American Catholics and their leaders. One key to healing that breach is for bishops to subject themselves to the same scrutiny and the same disciplinary measures, up to and including removal from ministry, they are asking of the rest of the Catholic community. This, too, should be part of the looming dialogue with Rome.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002