National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Washington Notebook
Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

What of the innocent priests

Norms offer little protection to priests falsely accused


Among the many unpleasant questions raised by the clergy sex abuse scandal, not least is this: What if the priest is falsely accused?

Given the history of cover-up and subterfuge that has marked the church’s response to clerical molesters, the guilt or innocence of a single priest is not a concern that resonates much beyond the clergy itself. To even raise the question, it seems, is to risk the perception of being soft on abusers.

But it’s not a theoretical issue, if even a handful of the many priests currently contesting the “credible accusations” against them are found to be truthful.

But how to determine innocence?

At their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, the U.S. bishops refined procedures to deal with such accusations. In the glare of an unprecedented media frenzy (nearly 1,000 members of the press were credentialed at the meeting) the bishops approved “particular law” for the U.S. church -- the “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons.”

The norms are designed to ensure that the long-trampled-on rights of victims are protected, that clerical abusers are removed from ministry, and that accused priests are treated fairly.

Victims’ groups say the first two goals -- protection for victims who come forward and removal from ministry -- have fallen woefully short. Church leaders, pointing to the recent audit of diocesan compliance with the charter that established the norms, dispute those characterizations and claim progress.

But what of the third objective? Is the church capable, given the level of public scrutiny and its history of dealing with the issue, of meting out justice?

“The church is simply not prepared to handle these cases,” said Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, visiting professor of law at Georgetown University.

Speaking from his fourth floor office four blocks from the Capitol Building on a wintry Washington afternoon, the Hungarian-born Orsy pulls few punches. The norms instigated a “very deep resentment within the clergy in the whole country,” said the 82-year-old canon and civil lawyer, “an emotional break in the relationship between the bishops and their priests.”

The process was flawed. “The way [the bishops] did the legislation was unique in the history of canon law,” said Orsy. “To make prudent laws you need reflection, discussion and peace. And they did the legislation in Dallas, right in the center of a circus, which is not the proper place [to write] legislation.”

To get it right, the bishops should have considered the issue, appointed a committee to draft the norms, and reconvened after the dust had settled a little, said Orsy. “We are dealing with a complex problem and they wanted to solve it in a simplistic way.”

The norms call on bishops to suspend a priest from ministry once a credible accusation of abuse is brought forward. If the investigation bears out the allegation, the priest (with an exception for the elderly and infirm) is to be removed from ministry.

Writing in the Boston College Law Review, Orsy spelled out his objections to the “hasty” legislation.

“The norms offer weak protection to innocent priests and deacons who are easy targets of groundless accusations,” he wrote. Meanwhile, the protections that are offered (the accused, for example, “is encouraged to retain counsel”) mean little because the legal infrastructure necessary to protect the rights of the accused is almost nonexistent. “A priest is suspended and he has no reliable procedure to which he can turn,” said Orsy. “It is so slow, so convoluted and so lacking of properly trained personnel -- especially in small dioceses -- that it is not enough.”

Additional problems:

  • The norms lack a common definition of “sexual abuse.” Orsy wrote: “To assign the ultimate responsibility for the definition of the crime to the diocesan bishop/eparch may result in definitions diverging from place to place and from case to case; not a sound practice in criminal law.”
  • Similarly, the written policies for dealing with sexual abuse issues required by the norms are not uniform. “Such an obviously deficient approach can be explained only by the extreme concern of the conference not to trespass on the jurisdiction of the individual bishops,” Orsy wrote.
  • The “norms offer no legal safeguards to prevent the repetition of misguided actions by bishops” nor do they give a role to the “college of presbyters [priests]” in “resolving the crisis and preventing similar ones in the future.” Said Orsy: “The fact that a small percentage of [priests] were sick is not a reason not to use all the intelligence and energy of the rest.”

For more of NCR's interview with Fr. Ladislas Orsy, see the Washington Notebook at

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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