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Zero Tolerance? -- Taking Another Look


Gerald D. Coleman, S.S.
Taken from Commonweal


At their June meeting in Dallas, the bishops of the United States adopted a charter for the protection of children and young people, and a set of norms for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests, deacons, and other church personnel. The bishops' charter presents seventeen articles, and is followed by twelve norms. The articles outline provisions for the outreach to victims, the establishment of a review board in every diocese, and mandated reporting and cooperation with public authorities.

They state that "even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor past, present or future will result in the permanent removal of a priest or deacon from his ministerial duties," which may include the request to Rome for the priest to be laicized, and call for the establishment of a national office for child and youth protection and other provisions such as careful screening of seminary candidates.

The norms outline the process to be followed if a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor is made against a priest or deacon. They repeat article 5 of the charter, specifying that such a priest will not be permitted "to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb, or to present himself publicly as a priest."

Both the bishops' charter and norms deserve careful re- flection. In an older liturgical time, the hymn Tu es sacerdos in aeternum ("You Are a Priest Forever") was frequently sung at priestly ordinations. Its words carried a solemn sense that from that day forward, the newly ordained priest would always be a priest. The promise bore two interlocking meanings: that the newly ordained priest was commissioned to celebrate the sacraments and visibly witness to priestly ministry; and that he was now configured to the person of Christ as priest, prophet, shepherd, and king. Thus, Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that when a priest celebrates the sacraments, Christus adest (Christ is present).

Following the bishops' Dallas meeting, many dioceses across the United States witnessed the removal of priests from public ministry, a fact that not only called into question the permanence of priesthood as conferred in the sacrament of orders, but raised profound practical concerns for individual priests. The morale of priests across the country plummeted, not only because of the scandal but because the removals were so swift, and because there were no diocesan support mechanisms in place to assist the dismissed priests.

A second concern raised by the bishops' swift passage of their Dallas charter and norms was that the documents failed to distinguish the range of activities that count as sexual abuse. While sexual abuse is always reprehensible, its various manifestations do not necessarily have equal weight. Some distinction among the kind and number of sexual offenses should have been weighed, and the punishments made in accord with these factors.

Third, while the bishops may have regained some of their moral credibility by taking a definitive stand on sexual abuse issues, the question must be raised whether they lost credibility in other ways. Even though the charter mentioned the sexual abuse of children by some bishops, it made no mention of bishops who knowingly moved offending priests from one assignment to another, creating a situation where the sexual abuse of children and young people was facilitated by their misguided judgments. These bishops should resign their ministry for the moral and spiritual good of the whole church. Their failure to do so has made their actions against offending priests seem like scapegoating.

Fourth, canon law (1341) states that if a penalty is adjudged, it must be imposed for three reasons: to repair scandal, to restore justice, and to reform the offender. This is a "healing" canon, and it demonstrates a level of fraternal correction that, in dealing with an offending priest, appears to be lacking in the norms set out in the bishops' charter. It would be well to remember here the words of John Paul II last April: "while recognizing how indispensable...criteria are, we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that 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." The sexual abuse of minors by some priests and bishops has caused enormous pain and scandal. The nature of this abuse, and its complexity , can only be addressed by a careful process of discernment. The bishops' imposition of automatic penalties was not an adequate solution. Furthermore, it will likely create victims of another type: wrongfully accused priests summarily dismissed without due process. I hope that the Vatican's own review of the decisions taken at Dallas will provide useful pastoral guidelines on how better-and more adequately to address the serious problem of offending priests. The steps taken so far by our bishops seem overly punitive and lacking in the due process owed to every priest.