The National Catholic Review
Vatican Reservations Emerging Over U.S. Direction on Sex Abuse

Recent statements by two Vatican officials have underscored reservations in Rome over the direction U.S. bishops are taking as they formulate a national policy on clerical sex abuse. In particular, the officials believe it would be wrong to oblige bishops to report all sex abuse allegations to civil authorities, a policy that has been adopted by an increasing number of U.S. dioceses.

For these canon law specialists, the crux of the issue is that bishops should be functioning as pastors, not policemen. They believe that when bishops start acting as reporting agents for the state, they compromise their own pastoral goalsone of which is to retrieve an errant priest and rehabilitate him spiritually.

U.S. cardinals left a Vatican summit in late April saying they were committed to zero tolerance of priestly sex abuse and would aim to formulate national norms at their June meeting in Dallas. If the Vatican approves the norms, they will be binding on all U.S. dioceses.

In mid-May, Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J., a leading consultor on church law to several Vatican agencies, outlined a number of legal concerns in an article published in the influential Jesuit magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica.

He said bishopsunless clearly negligent in investigating and correcting abuse situationsgenerally are not morally or legally responsible for the actions of their priests. Although he was speaking from the perspective of church law, his point underlined Vatican perplexity over the U.S. legal system and the fact that dioceses have been sued because of the actions of a single cleric.

Father Ghirlanda also cautioned on three procedural matters: that it was not good pastoral practice to notify civil authorities of all priestly sex abuse accusations; that psychological testing should not be required of suspected clerical abusers; and that if he reassigns a past abuser to active ministry, a bishop should not tell parishioners of the past abuse.

In a speech delivered a week after the U.S.-Vatican summit, the head of the Vatican agency that interprets canon law, Archbishop Julian Herranz, criticized attempts to require church leaders to report all abuse accusations to civil authorities and turn over relevant documents. Like Father Ghirlanda, Archbishop Herranz also argued that the church’s own means of dealing with clerical sex abusers should not be short-circuited by policies adopted because of the bishops’ fear of civil liability.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Father Ghirlanda said his article should not be seen as a Vatican directive to U.S. bishops as they approach their June meeting. Although the Vatican reviews Civiltà Cattolica content prior to publication, Father Ghirlanda said the article represented his own opinion and was written well before the U.S.-Vatican summit. I honestly don’t know if the Holy See will accept these points, he said.

Father Ghirlanda’s opinion carries weight, however. He is dean of the canon law faculty at Rome’s Gregorian University and is an official adviser to seven important Vatican agencies and to its highest appeals court.

Father Ghirlanda said the question of notifying civil authorities risks confusing the church’s investigative role with that of the state. My position is this: If a bishop is questioned [by the state] he should respond. If he is not questioned, he should not report, he said. Instead, he said, the bishop who receives a report of clerical sex abuse should conduct his own investigation, if necessary removing the accused priest quietly and temporarily from ministry. The bishop’s investigation should be undertaken with concern for the victim and the church community, but also for the accused priest, he said.

Even if a priest is guilty, the bishop remains the pastor of that priest. And I would say, from a Catholic and Christian point of view, even if the priest is guilty, the first thing a bishop should do is try to [spiritually] recover him, he said. Certainly, this should be done while protecting the Christian community, taking all the precautionary measures so that he cannot do harm.

On the other hand, Father Ghirlanda said, if a bishop does not proceed with the investigative methods offered by church law, but instead wants to cover up the affair even from a canonical point of view and simply moves the priest to another parish where he commits more abuse, then the bishop would be morally, canonically and perhaps even civilly responsible.

He said the important thing was to allow both systemscivil law and church lawto run their course. Currently in the United States, the two systems are experiencing very strong tension, he said. Maybe the solution could be found if representatives of the Holy See, the bishops’ conference and the government were to sit around a table and discuss how to arrive at mutual respect of the reciprocal areas of competence, he said. This is the way the church acts with countries with which the Holy See has concordats, but this has never occurred in the United States.

He said that where states have laws requiring bishops to report all clerical sex abuse accusations to civil authorities, the bishop may have to decide what comes first: his pastoral or his civil responsibilities. He sketched a scenario under which a bishop might go to jail rather than comply with a law requiring automatic reporting of every allegation. In this case, I would say being a bishop comes first, not being a citizen, he said.

In addition, he said, civil authorities that question a bishop are going to want informationwhich people the bishop has questioned in his own investigation, for example, and what answers he received. But this falls under secrecy and is kept in the secret archives of the bishop, he said.

Father Ghirlanda said he thinks some bishops have been so intimidated by the risk of civil proceedings that they have made settlement payments unwisely. I sometimes have the impression that the bishops are seized by such fear that they are perhaps disposed to immediately come to a settlement and pay.... If there’s that much psychological fear, then it’s better to go to trial, he said. In that case, a civil trial could determine the guilt or innocence of the priest and determine reparation, he said. The publicity might be painful, but in the end the procedure might be fairer, he said.

In the interview, Father Ghirlanda also took issue with the one strike and you’re out policy, advocated by some bishops, under which a priest would be barred from ministry after one episode of sexual abuse. Father Ghirlanda offered the hypothetical example of a priest who committed an act of abuse 30 years ago, who repented and who was never involved in another such episode. Yes, it was a sin, it was a mistake and it was a crime. But he reformed himself and there was never any other such act in his life. How can the church go after him? He’s been forgiven by God, and the church is not greater than God, he said.

Abuse Is an Added Burden’ to Church in Public Policy Arena

Church officials seeking to influence public policy now have to carry an added burden because of the sex abuse scandal, said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA, during an address given in New York. If society loses its trust in the church, he said, this would make it more difficult for the church to project its vision and influence the development of social policy. He said it was not inevitable that the bishops would now be heard with less respect, or that their influence necessarily would be diminished. But he said it would be foolish to ignore the added challenge created by the sex abuse scandal and the enormous burden this imposes when the bishops move into the public arena.

In Azerbaijan, Pope Pleads for Tolerance, End to Violence

Arriving in Azerbaijan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country with only 120 Catholics, Pope John Paul II pleaded for religious tolerance around the globe and an end to violence in the name of God. The 82-year-old pontiff looked frail on the first day of his 25-hour visit to the Caucasus nation, but he carried a strong message: No religion can allow itself to be used as a tragic excuse for conflict, he said at an arrival ceremony in Baku on May 22. Later, meeting with religious and cultural leaders, the pope said Christians, Muslims and Jews all share an essential belief in God, and should together proclaim to the world: enough of wars in the name of God. No more profanation of his holy name.

News Briefs

The Rev. Val J. Peter, executive director of Girls and Boys Town, said any priest who molests a child should be defrocked and anyone who covers up abuse should resign.

Michael Horowitz, director of the Project for International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute, said the 3-year-old U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom needs to do more than write reports and make recommendations. It also ought to be stirring the American public and international allies to speak out about religious freedom, as the U.S. Civil Rights Commission did when it helped rally the country in support of civil rights.

Dioceses where bishops have held or have scheduled listening sessions with the laity to prepare for the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas, Tex., on June 13-15 include Chicago; Milwaukee; St. Cloud, Minn.; Palm Beach, Fla.; Lansing, Mich.; and Sacramento, Calif.

The Catholic bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas have called for a national church policy of reporting all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities and removing priests who abuse from all ministry.

June 15 is the deadline to register and pay all fees for participation in World Youth Day, which is taking place in Toronto July 22-28. Registration can be completed online at www.wyd2002.org.

The heads of Catholic Charities USA and the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy criticized the welfare reauthorization bill passed by the House on May 16 for several provisions they said would require states to abandon needy people.

While economic concerns have a growing importance in international diplomacy, the first priority of diplomats must be to promote human rights and the common good of all the world’s people, Pope John Paul II said.

Comments

Art Maurer | 1/26/2007 - 4:53pm
Your recent issues are excellent, as they touch on frustrations many of us laity feel in the church. We are reminded, “We are the church,” yet the laity has no channel to be heard and when we do speak out we are seemingly ignored. Christopher Ruddy’s reference to the unfulfilled potential of parish councils (6/3) reminds me of the three councils I was a part of from the late 60’s through mid-80’s. As we formed the councils, we struggled to find a Vatican II balance between the authority of the pastor/hierarchy and the voice of the laity. We all worked in good faith, and slowly progress was being made. I have found recently, however, that the effort was wasted, as many councils are now only advisory, voting no longer being allowed.

There have been synods where the laity are asked to funnel input through the parishes to the bishop. But I’ve seen the richness of expressed need for change stated in working sessions, but then edited out as polite and “correct” statements are sent upward. There is no route for laypeople as individuals to have a meaningful exchange of ideas with a bishop. Any dissent with the status quo is viewed as disrespectful and, if politely acknowledged at all, is ignored.

Yet we laypeople must make tough decisions as we live our lives and raise our families. So since the church cannot hear our need, we are forced to leave our real cares at home as we bring our “church persona” to Mass, if we go to Mass at all.

The current scandal brings the vacuum between hierarchy and laity into sharp focus as many in the Vatican call for holding on to decision-making power in cases of abuse (“Vatican Reservations,” Signs of the Times, 6/3), while our culture in the United States calls for disclosure and turning matters over to civil authority. On this matter the laity will not sigh and walk away. When it comes to our children, the laity will be heard. So the Vatican II teaching, “We are the church” is now being tested after almost 40 years; yet we have developed no means to be so. Only through the grace of God will we become so.

Herbert Ely | 6/4/2002 - 6:57am
The contrast between Vatican and American standards for a leader's responsibility could not be more clear. According to Gianfranco Ghirlanda, bishops "unless clearly negligent" are not morally or legally responsible for the actions of their priests. In the US, a leader who knew or reasonably could have known, of illegal acts is responsible. For example, in the case of the Tailhook scandal involving the tolerance of sexual harassment of adult women, the Secretary of the Navy accepted the resignation of two Admirals who tolerated attempted covering up during the subsequent investigation. I am forced to conclude that the Vatican has a lower standard for its leaders than does US secular society. One also wonders if the Vatican would adopt a similarly low standard in doctrinal, as opposed to behavioral, matters.

It is time for the church to return to the leadership standard set in chapter 64 of the rule of St. Benedict (480-522):

"But if (which God forbid) the whole community should agree to choose a person who will acquiesce in their vices, and if those vices somehow become known to the Bishop to whose diocese the place belongs, or to the Abbots, Abbesses or the faithful of the vicinity, let them prevent the success of this conspiracy of the wicked, and set a worthy steward over the house of God. They may be sure that they will receive a good reward for this action if they do it with a pure intention and out of zeal for God; as, on the contrary, they will sin if they fail to do it." (emphasis added)

Herbert Ely | 6/4/2002 - 6:57am
The contrast between Vatican and American standards for a leader's responsibility could not be more clear. According to Gianfranco Ghirlanda, bishops "unless clearly negligent" are not morally or legally responsible for the actions of their priests. In the US, a leader who knew or reasonably could have known, of illegal acts is responsible. For example, in the case of the Tailhook scandal involving the tolerance of sexual harassment of adult women, the Secretary of the Navy accepted the resignation of two Admirals who tolerated attempted covering up during the subsequent investigation. I am forced to conclude that the Vatican has a lower standard for its leaders than does US secular society. One also wonders if the Vatican would adopt a similarly low standard in doctrinal, as opposed to behavioral, matters.

It is time for the church to return to the leadership standard set in chapter 64 of the rule of St. Benedict (480-522):

"But if (which God forbid) the whole community should agree to choose a person who will acquiesce in their vices, and if those vices somehow become known to the Bishop to whose diocese the place belongs, or to the Abbots, Abbesses or the faithful of the vicinity, let them prevent the success of this conspiracy of the wicked, and set a worthy steward over the house of God. They may be sure that they will receive a good reward for this action if they do it with a pure intention and out of zeal for God; as, on the contrary, they will sin if they fail to do it." (emphasis added)