“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.
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What can Catholics do to reform what speakers acknowledged was an outdated and at times cumbersome process for investigating and adjudicating priestly misconduct?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.