Catholic San Francisco


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Years removed from Dallas
June 20th, 2011
By Father Gerald D. Coleman, SS




In his March 2011 address to the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, conference President Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York referenced the Philadelphia grand jury's Feb. 10 report mandating the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to "review all of the old allegations against currently active priests and to remove from ministry all of the priests with credible allegations against them."

The grand jury's 124-page report cited 37 priests as continuing in active ministry in the archdiocese despite credible allegations of sex abuse against them. Subsequently, 24 priests were suspended, others were found innocent, and some have left the priesthood.

He named the grand jury's findings "painful [and] needing our careful attention." He reaffirmed the USCCB's 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the Essential Norms which carry the force of law. The protection of children, he said, is "of the highest priority" and the bishops "remain especially firm in our commitment to remove permanently from public ministry any priest who committed such an intolerable offense." Zero tolerance is the dominant principle of the charter: Even a single offense, no matter the mitigating circumstances, is deemed sufficient to debar a priest for life from the exercise of ministry, including the possibility of laicization.

While Archbishop Dolan's remarks are fundamentally and understandably canonical in nature, his St. Patrick's Day “Pastoral Letter on the Sacrament of Penance” places his concerns in an important moral context. He persuasively argues that in the midst of these scandals Christ "does not release his grip on the church. In spite of [our] weakness ... he keeps the church in his grasp." If there is one thing the sexual abuse scandals has taught "in a most painful way (it is) the reality of sin."

A number of events landscape Archbishop Dolan's reflections: April was National Child Abuse Prevention Month; the USCCB's June meeting in Seattle to review the charter and norms; the April 4 keynote address at Marquette University Law School by Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, "Harm, Hope and Healing: International Dialogue on the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal," where he argued the need to "examine clericalism and other elements of church culture that may have contributed to the scandal's longevity;" and the March 2011 letter to Archbishop Dolan from the USCCB's National Review Board that two dioceses and five eparchies are not in compliance with the charter.

As the U.S. bishops revisit their policies on clergy sex abuse, some members of the church are raising two controversial points: (a) The bishops should re-examine their zero tolerance policy on the grounds that all sexual breaches against children are not of equal weight, whereby creating disproportionate inequities by making no distinctions among different degrees of gravity of sex abuse, and (b) because there are insufficient safeguards against false accusations, the automatic suspension after a charge is lodged and while it is being investigated needs rethinking.

Such concerns constitute major challenges. It seems apparent at the moment, however, that bishops are not disposed to any fundamental revisions in the charter or essential norms. At the same time, certain ongoing moral issues do seem to call for further consideration:

First, the meaning of sexual abuse. The Essential Norms of 2002 defined sexual abuse in terms of inappropriate behavior, conduct or interaction with a minor. The 2006 revision replaces this understanding by stating that "sexual abuse shall include any offense by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor as understood in ... canon[s] 1395:2 and ... 1453:1." Additionally, in light of John Paul II's 2001 motu proprio, Sacramentorum santitatis tutela (article 4:1), "the more grave delicts against the Sacrament of Penance [are] reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."

The footnote to this revision states that "if there is any doubt whether a specific act qualifies as an external, objectively grave violation, the writings of recognized moral theologians should be consulted, and the opinions of recognized experts should be appropriately obtained." Ultimately, however, it is the responsibility of the diocesan bishop "to determine the gravity of the alleged act."

Classical moral theologians include intention as an intrinsic part of judging the morality of an act but also recognize that intention is not always easy to prove. Nevertheless, if a bishop determines that a child has been deliberately used in any way as an object of sexual gratification by an adult, this constitutes sexual abuse according to the definition above. Chapter 5 of Matthew is the biblical foundation for this moral reasoning: "... I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (v. 28). Sexual abuse may include, therefore, not only sexual contact but also grooming behaviors and the viewing of child pornography.

Second, the need in justice to protect priests who are falsely accused. Accusations of sexual misconduct against a cleric are considered the most serious claim one could make against a priest. Unfortunately at present, the process unintentionally implies guilt until innocence is proven. Some believe that priests have been sacrificed to the bishops' desire to protect children. Archbishop Dolan recognizes that under current policy any credible but unsubstantiated allegation triggers suspension pending a preliminary investigation and "in the vast majority of instances you can't remove a guy without people jumping to conclusions." Mary Jane Doerr, associate director of the USCCB's Office of Child and Youth Protection, insists that the bishops do care about the rights of accused priests and "they have no reason to ruin a man's career."

Third, many accused priests find themselves assumed guilty on the basis of allegations alone, charges that often do not have corroborating evidence or support. Since all accusations represent an intrinsic threat to diocesan credibility in its care for children and youth, the vast majority of accused priests who have been tried and exonerated by a diocesan tribunal have not been fully reinstated in active ministry. The concern about recidivism plays a critical role here.

Fourth, significant concerns have been raised about unmonitored, un-reinstated priests who have been found guilty of sex abuse of children and youths. While zero tolerance makes the institutional church safer, it does so potentially at the cost of putting society at greater risk. (Chicago) Cardinal (Francis) George commented, for example, that "we have to keep looking at the process, so that predators are permanently removed but in a way that also doesn't harm people who are innocent."

Fifth, the critical issue of forgiveness of abusers has never been adequately explored. When addressing clergy offenses against children, for example, John Paul II made clear that sex abuse is both a sin and a crime against society. He added, "At the same time ... we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, the radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change." Because of their legal nature, the charter and essential norms do not explicitly address the real possibility of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation for abusing priests. Clergy sex abuse has become an unforgiveable sin.

This anguishing phenomenon finds moving testimony in David Spotanski's April 2002 letter to Wilton D. Gregory, then bishop of Belleville, Ill. He writes as a parent and emphasizes that "our children are more important to Sharon and me than anything in the world... No priest, no religious, no lay person who is not a parent can truly appreciate the incredible weight of that single sentence."

Perhaps forgiveness too easily translates for many as absolution without justice. A better notion might be compassion which prompts a virtuous response. Compassion is "the painful emotion caused by the awareness of another person's undeserved misfortune" (Martha Nussbaum, “Upheavals of Thought.” Compassion recognizes that the abuser is still a human being but one who suffers from a profound and dangerous psychological disorder that tempts the person to engage in destructive behaviors that can become compulsive.

Compassion does not absolve the offender from injustices committed. The abusing priest must be resolved to desist from continuing or repeating his evil actions and to use the professional help that he needs to do so, and he must be prepared to make satisfaction as far as possible. Compassion does not take the place of justice nor does it imply indulgence toward evil or the real injury caused to victims of abuse.

Finally, when an abusive priest is laicized, church documents once used the term "reduced to the lay state." This is why Spotanski's letter to then-Bishop Gregory, (now archbishop of Atlanta), states that "I'm offended by the connotation that the worst church penalty an abusive priest can endure is to be `thrown back’ to the laity." As evidenced in the 2006 rescript from the Congregation for the Clergy, however, the terminology now employed is "the loss of the clerical state" and the loss of the "rights proper to the clerical state." (See also Canon 290).

This language more clearly identifies an authentic meaning of laicization and does not compromise the theology of priesthood. Considering the ontological nature of ordination, it seems persuasive to say that a priest who abuses children can be removed from the clerical state, even though his priesthood sustains an indelible character (The Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Congregation for the Clergy, 1994, nos. 5-6). Vatican II's Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 2, and Pastores Dabo Vobis, John Paul II's extensive 2002 treatment of the priesthood, address this "special character," in terms of a "configuration" at "the very being" of a priest who is "ontologically assimilated to Christ" (nos. 11-16). It thus seems more understandable to speak of abusive priests being stripped of their clerical state. While the nature of their special character has been badly tarnished, it remains a permanent definition of his very being.

Sulpician Father Gerald Coleman is vice president for corporate ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System, a lecturer in moral theology at Santa Clara University and a former vicar for priests for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.


From the June 24, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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