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Canon law society probes issues of justice, due process at annual convention


In the aftermath of the clergy sex abuse scandals and the U.S. bishops’ Dallas response, a number of Catholic organizations are finding their agendas shaped by the events of the day. Perhaps none has been called on to grapple with the ramifications of priests’ removal, spelled out in the bishops’ norms and charter, more than the Canon Law Society of America.

The 1,500-member society, which includes both male and female canon lawyers, held its annual convention in Cincinnati Oct. 7-10. A major focus of the convention was a closed-to-the-press “Presidential Hearing on Sexual Misconduct.” The hearing was open only to members of the association in order to avoid “distraction,” according to Fr. Patrick Lagges, the society’s press officer and a member of its board of governors. Lagges said the hearing, also described as a listening session, was requested by members so the society might determine how best to respond to the crisis of sexual abuse by clergy and church personnel.

The society’s president, Fr. Kevin E. McKenna, told NCR, “There are a lot of possibilities for education about the discipline and tradition of law in the church. In the long run, that can help to resolve the crisis.”

Members of the canon law society reviewed both of the documents issued in June by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and the “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests, Deacons or Other Church Personnel.” But the society’s definitive response -- canonists generally see considerable conflict between the norms and rights and procedures outlined in canon law -- is on hold until members learn the Vatican’s ruling. (At NCR press time Oct. 17, it was expected to be announced in the next few days.)

In the meantime, “what we can do best as a society is maintain our commitment to educating people concerning rights and what processes are already in place,” said Fr. Lawrence O’Keefe, the society’s vice president.

Due process and confidentiality are two areas of concern, O’Keefe said, as well as the idea that “zero tolerance” could violate a person’s right to due process. “We use a lot of words, but what does ‘zero tolerance’ mean? What are the implications?”

McKenna emphasized that the current concern is the implementation of the present law, “and to make sure that we’re all on the same page and that all rights are preserved.”

The difference between canon law, based in Roman law, and civil law with its basis in English common law, is one of the points of education, said Franciscan Fr. Arthur Espelage, the society’s executive coordinator.

“The goal of civil law is justice; the goal of canon law is truth,” Espelage said. “Sometimes the two overlap completely, but they may not.”

In discussing canonical proof, imputability -- a term used by canonists in discussing culpability -- plays a much greater role than in civil law, Espelage said. “If you had a person in a position of honor and trust, it would increase imputability. A disorder like manic-depression would lessen imputability. Canonical justice seeks moral certitude, which is difficult to define but at times is more rigorous than reasonable doubt. It reflects concern for truth rather than justice; it goes the extra mile.”

To be of service in interpreting the norms established by the bishops, Espelage said that the canon law society must proceed cautiously in order to uphold the dignity of the human person. “Our response must be imbued with the teachings of Jesus Christ. He would be upset with some of the things that are taking place.”

The norms the U.S. bishops formulated during their Dallas meeting in June will have an impact not on just the American church, but also on the church throughout the world, Espelage said. As such, the cultural element, which often plays a great role in civil law, must be taken into account. Some other countries don’t understand the problems of sexual misconduct in the United States, or at least don’t view them with the same severity Americans do, Espelage explained. “That’s the element that captures ordinary laypeople. They look at their own culture as the norm,” he said. “The Dallas norms will have an effect on the universal church and will affect the nations and canonical justice.”

Over 500 members of the society attended the annual convention. Keynote speaker on Oct. 7 was Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk. He addressed the topic, “Magisterium, Ministry, Membership,” which examined life in the post-Vatican II church.

“I think that, in God’s providence, we may be coming to a renewed awareness of what the church was meant to be and of the various contexts of calling that constitute its life,” Pilarczyk said. “The church is not primarily about priests and bishops bossing laypeople. The church is primarily about laypeople working for the kingdom.

“The issue is not importance in the church or power, but rather the value and meaning of the diversity in the church,” he said. “The issue is not who gets to drive the bus, but whether the people on the bus know where it’s going and whether they want to go there.”

Seminars during the convention touched on such topics as sources of liturgical law, inclusivity of ministry, and lay ministry and complementarity, in which speakers Myriam Wiljins and John J. Grogan identified the specific canonical position of clergy, laity who hold office in the church and lay volunteers.

One seminar gave an overview of the Islamic legal tradition, a topic that was requested by members after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “Members wanted an understanding of other religious legal traditions and how authority is exercised,” said Lagges.

At the business meeting, members discussed three resolutions, including one titled “CLSA Response to Sexual Misconduct in the Church,” which was formulated by the board of governors after the presidential hearing. The society resolved to publish and circulate to all members of the U.S. hierarchy all canon law and relevant commentary pertinent to due process and the right to recourse, together with an explanation of how to implement the processes. Members also agreed that within 90 days they would forward to the appropriate Vatican congregations a copy of the resolution and the society’s guide to the implementation of the U.S. bishops’ proposed directives and norms.

The society elected Msgr. Mark L. Bartchak of the Erie, Pa., diocese as vice president/president elect.

Margaret Gabriel is a free-lance writer living in Lexington, Ky.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002