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Dismissed priests have appeal option,
but process remains unclear

By Christine Alexander
Catholic News Service

For priests dismissed under provisions of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," approved by the U.S. bishops in Dallas in June, canon law opens the door to appeal.

But "from a canonical perspective, (the charter) leaves a lot of unanswered questions -- the waters are murky," said Father Art Espelage, executive coordinator of the Canon Law Society of America in Washington. "Everyone is trying to clarify and find their way."

"The light we use in a murky process is the rule of law," Father Espelage said in a telephone interview with the Catholic Chronicle, Toledo diocesan newspaper.

In cases like the recent dismissals of four Toledo diocesan priests, Father Espelage said, "Although the policy in Dallas made no specific mention of appeals, when we talk about a sense of justice, I don't see how we could have no appeals."

Calling the right to appeal fundamental, Father Espelage said that for more than 1,000 years canon law has a tradition of allowing appeals. "The whole thing is in so much turmoil," he said of implementation of the charter concerning the dismissal of priests.

Father David Ross, pastor of St. Charles Parish in Lima and a canon lawyer, said the "canonical chat" on the Internet indicates some priests are appealing rulings they feel are unfair. Whether any of the four priests dismissed by Toledo Bishop James R. Hoffman July 7 will appeal the ruling was yet to be seen.

However, several Chicago priests have begun the appeal process.

Bishop Hoffman said he would advise anyone seeking an appeal to "get a canon lawyer who is an expert in the field." As in the U.S. legal system, canon lawyers have particular areas of expertise.

If any of the Toledo diocesan priests appealed and had his dismissal overturned by Rome, what then? "My sense is that in some quarters they would be happy and others would think this should never occur," Father Ross said.

Likening the procedure to an appeal that makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Father Ross said the 2000 election is a good case in point. "The ruling of the Supreme Court (that George Bush won) was not applauded by all, but the ruling of the Supreme Court was final -- that's that. There is a sense of finality."

Father Espelage agreed with the need to have the church legal process proceed. "I am 31 years a Catholic priest and a church lawyer since 1979," he said. "On one hand this whole thing is personally saddening and embarrassing. However, as a canonist it has some very interesting legal aspects."

Of priests who have been dismissed, he said, "Some may be very guilty and some may be innocent. We can't resolve this on the basis of feelings. When the rule of law breaks down we have greater injustice.

"I firmly believe we need to use the legal resources available," he added. "It will take time. This won't be settled the day-before-yesterday as most Americans so desire. But those affected should appeal."