What to do with accused priests

I found this article about the lack of due process for accused priests very interesting.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is how to deal with priests who have been accused.  Of course, it goes without saying, that it is more important to first consider protecting children before one considers the issue of handling the priests.  However, that doesn’t remove our obligation to treat every human being with the dignity they deserve.  The reality is that even the worst criminals who are put in jail are still given a place to live (the jail) and food to eat.  So what do we do with priests who are accused to both protect our children while accepting that when the priest was ordained the Church took on the duty to provide for them?

I think it is a very difficult issue, one that I’m not sure the article did a good job of addressing.  Furthermore, I think it is important to note that we face the same issue in civil society.  When a crime merits refusing bail, we still take the freedom of that criminal away while they are still presumed innocent.  If they later are found not-guilty they get no more than an “oops” from the state despite the fact that the state took their life away from them for at least a year in most cases.  Similarly the complaints about feeling obligated to take early retirement feel a lot like a plea-bargain.  Often times they are done not to admit guilt but to find the most pain-free way out of a bad situation.  I’ve seen many articles in the news where the accused felt “forced” to accept a plea-bargain in a civil trial.

To some degree, it sounds like the current process within the Church has a similar format to civil courts.  There is an initial analysis/hearing to determine if there could potentially be any merit to the case, similar to an arraignment.  Then there is what is effectively a “preliminary trial” done by the diocese.  The final trial does not occur until the Vatican gets involved.  That all sounds pretty good.

However, there are three aspects of the current process that worry me:

  1. The most troubling to me is the level of penalty the “preliminary trial” can assess.  Layicizing a priest doesn’t sound like a “preliminary” action.  While removing them from ministry and even notifying the public of that may be necessary for both safety and PR issues, denying that person their ordinational right while still awaiting the full trial seems inappropriate.
  2. The next issue that exists is one that is addressed in US law that probably is missing from the Church canonical process: the right to a speedy trial.  I know it can take the Vatican years to get around to these types of trials, which is unacceptable if a man’s life is hanging in the balance.  It further makes the “preliminary trial” all to much like the final trial.
  3. Finally, the housing and income of the priest.  I’m very concerned that they can be cut loose when guilt has not been conclusively determined.  I’m fine with forcing them to live at a retreat house or something similar, but denying them their Church income and telling them to go find their own means of living while they are still presumed innocent is unfair.

To some degree I am OK with the idea that the Church overshot in its initial reaction to the crisis.  It was an important time to make sure as many loopholes as possible were closed for those who were abusing our children and, as a result, robbing our money through the lawsuits brought against the Church.  However, it is important that over time the Church refine its processes so as to protect both the rights of our children and the rights of our priests who have dedicated their lives to serving God and the Church.

Hopefully articles like this can help the Church to continue in a prayerful and thorough analysis to determine what if any revisions of the norms need to be made.

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