Canon aid

“It has been described as the dark side of the good news,” said Rochester, N.Y.'s Father Kevin McKenna, “the arterial sclerosis of the mystical body.” Father McKenna was, of course, referring to the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, a codification of church rules and regs that can be traced back to the Acts of the Apostles, representing perhaps “the oldest legal system in the world.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, perhaps frustrated by the confusion canon law generates among both secular and religious journalists, hosted a one-day canon law teach-in yesterday in Washington. A group of about 20 journalists from around the country, including reporters from USA Today, The New York Times and the Boston Globe (and yours truly), participated. More sat in via an Internet link. Canon Law's European-style, inquiry-based justice seeking has been a source of consternation for U.S. journalists—and it's fair to say U.S. laypeople—more familiar with the rapid confrontations and outcomes of the U.S. adversarial system of justice. It’s too early to say if the U.S.C.C.B. seminar will produce more informed coverage of the sexual abuse crisis and the church’s juridical efforts to respond to it, but I think I can attest there are a handful of budding canon jurists now let loose among the U.S. media, armed with a little more info and perhaps slightly less befuddled by all things Curial. To steal a line from Red Smith: This may be a good thing.

Advertisement

Definitely the best lines of the day went to Father John Beal of the Catholic University of America, whose refreshingly blunt evaluations of Canon Law and the church’s performance during the crisis of clerical sexual abuse seemed to startle the assembled journalists. Asked why church tribunals investigating the abuse of children and other high crimes among the clergy and sometimes their outcomes remain so secretive, Father Beal didn’t miss a beat: “Saving face,” he said. “It’s not always healthy or helpful, but it is.”

What can Catholics do to reform what speakers acknowledged was an outdated and at times cumbersome process for investigating and adjudicating priestly misconduct? Beal told the journalists basically “not much.” As ecclesiastical “flunkies, “ even canon lawyers, he said, have little influence on reforming the system. “We raise the issues until it is brought home to people in positions of authority, [but] they are relatively immune.”

He added, “One of the troubles is bishops who seek reform at the Holy See don’t move on from Erie, Pennsylvania.”

After one journalist wondered how in an era of instant messaging and telecommunication excess the church can maintain a system that was essentially perfected during the Napoleonic Wars, Beal agreed that it was about time for the church to consider modernizing its practices: “It will be wrenching, but it will have to happen.”

Another bottleneck Beal noted was the problem of staffing in Rome, where the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith maintains just 13 staffers to review all investigations and advice on penal or administrative judgments of priests accused of sexual assaults. “We think of the Vatican like the Pentagon, but the staff of the Vatican is relatively limited,” he said.

Perhaps his most potentially controversial comment, however, was a stark suggestion that the church reconsider laicization as the preferred response to abusing clerics. Many clerics whose guilt has been established committed their assaults decades ago and have timed out of both civil and criminal judgments, he noted, questioning aloud the wisdom of laicization for such men. Wouldn’t it be better for the church to assume responsibility over them to keep them from further harming society?

“If we cut them loose, then we solve our internal problem, but they are loose in society and we have very little ability to monitor their behavior,” he said. Beal worried that the laicized, now without financial support and trained for little else will seek work in professions such as social workers or teachers that may put them into close contact with children. “They will have to find some kind of way in to support themselves,” Beal said, “and they will gravitate toward the caring professions, where they have already shown, to put it lightly, an in ability to maintain professional boundaries. Do we want them to function as counselors or teachers? If we make their pensions dependent on some kind of monitoring, we may be able to direct them to jobs that are not as high risk.”

Beal seemed aware that such a proposals would not be received with universal delight, but insisted that it is worth considering if a sentence of “prayer and penance” was not the best alternative for some offenders. “We ought to look at what are the options and whether we are doing society any big favor by putting these people out there in the open, particularly if there does not seem to be any criminal or secular process in the offing.”

Beal also surprised the journalists with the revelation that victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy could join church trials as third parties and sue for damages against individual priests, though he allowed their monetary awards would probably not amount to much. “The church has deeper pockets,” he dryly noted.

Kevin Clarke

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Molly Roach
8 years 2 months ago
The problem is that serving the people of Erie (or whatever little diocese you want to name)is not held as an honor by the men who call themselves the successors of the Apostles.   They have no shame.
William Kurtz
8 years 2 months ago
Another problem is the trend to appoint canon lawyers as bishops. Some of them seem to look on canon law the way fundamentalists look at the Old Testament, or certain Muslims see the Qu'ran, as the all-purpose guide to everything.
8 years 2 months ago
Now I am certainly not an expert on canon law but I was exposed to someone who knows the history of it on an audio course by Modern Scholar.  They employ a very interesting history teacher named Thomas F. Madden who is a professor of history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University which by the way is a Jesuit school.  He has taught several courses for this series.  Many of them are on religion and the Catholic Church.
 
http://www.recordedbooks.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=scholar.show_professors&prof_id=42
 
In one of them he discusses canon law.  Essentially the Church has always viewed itself separate from secular society and always dealt with their own.  Now this may seem strange to many, especially many of those here, as they don't seem to be aware of this history.  Mr. Clarke seems to be unaware of it.  Thus, any transgression by a priest would be handled completely within the Church and any disposition of the priest would be handled by the Church.  He is a priest forever and one of their own.  That is the way it has been done since apparently the time of the Apostles.  Priests were the province of the Church and if necessary they would be handed off to civilian society if it was felt necessary but they were first tried and judged within the Church and discipline handed out accordingly.
 
As I said this probably sounds so foreign to the secularists of today and especially the secularist who populate this site but that is apparently how much of transgressions by priests were dealt with through history.  Since I said I am not in any way very knowledgeable on this topic and am just repeating what was presented someplace else, maybe a Jesuit or two might sound off on this.  Or any other expert on Canon Law.  To mock it as this post has done is to mock the Catholic Church.  It deserves a better hearing.
 
Gloria Sullivan
8 years 2 months ago
Maybe any of you should google  Fr. Thomas Doyle, canon lawyer, etc.  You will find out a lot about this place called the RCC. 
Gloria Sullivan
8 years 2 months ago
Maybe any of you should google  Fr. Thomas Doyle, canon lawyer, etc.  You will find out a lot about this place called the RCC. 
ed gleason
8 years 2 months ago
JR Cosgrove calls out secularists to anyone who does not go along with the 'sweet' assumption  that the Church has its own laws and that it is above any civil law. also has the nerve to say this was dated to the apostles when every schoolboy knows it was dated to Constantine. Those of us who say basta  are not secularists, we are small r Christian republicans and I emphasize small r..... .the canon law ballgame is over... it's been mentioned in all the media lately.  
8 years 2 months ago
Some people should read what I say and point out what I said that was actually wrong.  I appreciate learning things.  Opinions by someone does not make someone's else's comment wrong.  But then they fail to read and accuse one of misrepresenting something.  For example,
 
''also has the nerve to say this was dated to the apostles when every schoolboy knows it was dated to Constantine''
 
Notice that I said ''since apparently the time of the Apostles'' it was not an absolute statement.  I made this comment because of Mr. Clarke's statement, ''can be traced back to the Acts of the Apostles, representing perhaps “the oldest legal system in the world.''
 
I was also using the following wikipedia quote for that particular point but if Mr. Clarke was wrong and wikipedia is wrong then I will go with what is correct.  Wikipedia quote
 
''The Roman Catholic Church has the oldest continuously functioning legal system in Western Europe,[4] predating the common and European civil law traditions. What began with rules (''canons'') adopted by the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem in the 1st century has blossomed into a highly complex and original legal system encapsulating not just norms of the New Testament, but some elements of the Hebrew (Old Testament), Roman, Visigothic, Saxon, and Celtic legal traditions spanning thousands of years of human experience.''
 
Now here is an opinion.  Basta to the constant critics of the Church.  Why don't these malcontents find another religious home.  I for one am extremely proud of the Catholic Church.  For example, I went this morning to a May crowing where the new First Communicants led the Rosary and crowned the Blessed Mother as the whole school attended a Mass.   I couldn't have been prouder of the priests and the teachers, the parents of the children and these new communicants.
Jim McCrea
8 years 2 months ago
"For example, I went this morning to a May crowing where the new First Communicants led the Rosary and crowned the Blessed Mother as the whole school attended a Mass.   I couldn't have been prouder of the priests and the teachers, the parents of the children and these new communicants."
 
And how many of these kids do you think will be participating Catholic 10-15 years hence?
 
Being enculturated is NOT the same as experiencing conversion.  Cultural trappings very often get in the way of coming face to face with what it takes to become a Christian.
8 years 2 months ago
Mr. Clarke,
 
Is canon law relevant to the discussion?  I think so or else why was it made.  Did you tell us why it was relevant?  I did not see it.  Did you portray canon law in a positive light''  I do not think so.  Did you portray it accurately?  I do not think so.  Did you portray canon law as sort of not relevant in a serious situation?  I think so.  Does such a portrayal make the Church look good?  I do not think so.  For example:
 
It has been described as the dark side of the good news,” said Rochester, N.Y.'s Father Kevin McKenna, “the arterial sclerosis of the mystical body.
 
Beal told the journalists basically “not much.” As ecclesiastical “flunkies, “ even canon lawyers, he said, have little influence on reforming the system. “We raise the issues until it is brought home to people in positions of authority, [but] they are relatively immune.”
 
''One of the troubles is bishops who seek reform at the Holy See don’t move on from Erie, Pennsylvania.''
 
You chose what to put in and what not to put in.  Does such a light hearted portrayal that you said you made, make the Church look good.  I do not think so.  Is it accurate on canon law?  I do not think so.  Is it slanted?  I think so.
 
I rest my case.  Maybe not based on canon law.
8 years 2 months ago
''Being enculturated is NOT the same as experiencing conversion.  Cultural trappings very often get in the way of coming face to face with what it takes to become a Christian.''
 
I am not sure what your point is.  Was the Mass and ceremony today counterproductive?  I do not think so.  It wasn't for generation after generation of Catholics many of who went on to do some remarkable things in the name of their God and their Church.  Do many Catholics remember fondly similar events when they were children?  I think so.  Is it all that is necessary to remain a Catholic for the rest of their lives?  Obviously not and we have here on this site the authors of the biggest failure to inculcate a love for the Catholic religion in this country and maybe the world, the Jesuits.  Who else teaches more Catholic at a formative age then the Jesuits?  Who should be looking inward at themselves the hardest?
 
I find it amazing that here I am defending the Catholic Church from supposedly Catholics on a site run by the largest order of Catholic religious in the world.  But most of what I find on this site including most of the authors are people who are disgruntled with the Church not defenders of the Church.
 
Brendan McGrath
8 years 2 months ago
JR Cosgrove - You wrote, "Basta to the constant critics of the Church.  Why don't these malcontents find another religious home."   How can you say such a thing, if you believe, as I do, that it is an ecclesio-cosmic tragedy whenever anyone leaves the Church?  It is always better for someone to stay within in the Church - even if you might say that they are no longer actually in the Church because of their disagreement on this or that. Even to be in physical proximity to the Blessed Sacrament can be a means of grace.  The so-called "malcontents" should not try to find another religious home, because, to put it bluntly and without all the nuance and footnotes, God wants people to be Catholic: even if in your eyes they fail to live up to that, wouldn't it be worse to separate themselves further from the Church?
8 years 2 months ago
Mr. McGrath,
 
Actually, I do not really mean it.  I would not want anyone to leave the Church but people around here seem to want a Church I do not recognize and which has never existed.  I never heard the term ''basta'' before and was just throwing it back to emphasize a point  I find little love here only contempt towards the Church, what it stand for and to those who defend the Church.  As I said I am quite proud of the Catholic Church and believe it is under the direction of God even with all its warts.  Nothing better has ever existed in the history of man. 

Advertisement

The latest from america

I have found myself for the first time truly afraid of what it means to ask and to allow my children to be part of the church.
Kerry WeberAugust 15, 2018
Cardinal William H. Keeler in May 2009. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) 
A Pennsylvania report accuses Keeler of covering up sexual abuse allegations while serving as bishop of Harrisburg.
Associated PressAugust 15, 2018
With her appeal to emotion, Gadsby reminds audiences to see the vulnerable, resilient human being behind the humiliated stand-up comic.
Allyson EscobarAugust 15, 2018
Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, are pictured during the 2017 Catholic convocation in Orlando, Fla.  (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
“Our first job is to listen, to be empathetic,” said Deacon Bernie Nojadera, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for the Protection of Children and Young People.