As the U.S. Catholic bishops' proposed rules for responding to sexual abuse allegations against priests await an uncertain verdict from Rome, an influential canon lawyer has argued that the proposals are a belated effort to show sympathy for accusers by ignoring the canonical rights of the accused.
The Rev. John P. Beal, a Titusville native who heads the school of canon law at the Catholic University of America, will be the guest homilist at noon today for an annual Mass for lawyers in the St. Joseph Center, Greensburg. His talk is on broad goals of canon law. But in an article for the Oct. 7 issue of the Catholic magazine America, he argues that the bishops have defined sexual abuse too vaguely and accuses some of railroading priests without even cursory investigation.
"Unless the church's hierarchy learns to respect and vindicate the rights of ordinary priests, it will never move on to recognize and provide ways for vindicating the rights of the ordinary faithful," Beal wrote.
Both Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who fought for the broad definition of sexual abuse, and Nicholas Cafardi, the Duquesne law school dean who serves on the U.S. bishops National Review Board for sexual abuse cases, said that while the norms may need some refinement, they must be strong if the church is to live up to its own moral standards. The norms say that a priest who has committed even one act of sexual abuse against a minor must be permanently removed from ministry.
"I think the emphasis has been too long on the rights of priests. That is what has led to the reassignment of pedophiles. When will we talk about the right of the people to have a priest in their parish who won't harm them?" said Cafardi, who is a canon and civil lawyer.
In June the bishops approved 13 norms, which they want Rome to make into law for the United States. Beal's concerns reflect those expressed by some influential people in the Vatican.
If the norms are approved, the argument that they conflict with canon law would be moot, Cafardi said. "They would replace canon law in the United States. Rome is free to do that. So to say that the norms contradict canon law is like saying that a new law contradicts an old law," he said.
Beal's first objection is to the definition of sexual abuse.
It says that "Sexual abuse [includes] contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult. A child is abused whether or not this activity involves explicit force, whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not it is initiated by the child, and whether or not there is discernible harmful outcome . ... If there is any doubt about whether a specific act fulfills this definition, the writings of recognized moral theologians should be consulted and, if necessary, the opinion of a recognized expert be obtained."
Beal says this leaves the question of whether abuse occurred entirely up to the accuser's perception. "Thus, when a priest disrobes in a locker room before exercising, whether the priest will be considered to have exposed himself or simply to have changed clothes will depend on whether a minor who was in the locker room felt abused," he wrote.
Although Beal said in an interview that he knew of such cases, Cafardi responded that no reasonable person could consider the sight of someone changing clothes in a male locker room to be abuse.
Wuerl said that the definition itself states that doubtful cases should be resolved by traditional definitions of sexual abuse in Catholic moral theology. Furthermore, Wuerl said, the definition of abuse is not part of the norms that the bishops have asked Rome to approve.
Wuerl said he fought for the broad definition because he believes the church must have a higher standard for priestly conduct than civil law does. But he does not believe the definition is perfect. If the bishops had had more time to write, the definition could have been clarified, he said.
"There are some things in the charter that obviously need fine tuning. That is why we said in the charter itself that in a couple of years we would come back and revisit it," he said.
The norms say that when a "credible" allegation has been made, the accused priest will immediately be relieved of his duties while "an appropriate investigation in accord with canon law" takes place. Beal objects that the bishops never define "credible."
In actual practice, "what seems to be happening is that the diocesan official charged with receiving complaints makes a subjective assessment that the complainant appeared to be 'sincere' ... and that his or her complaint is, therefore, 'credible,' " he wrote.
To beef up the standard of credibility, Beal said in an interview, "they could start by actually doing an investigation."
"I have seen too many cases where a pastorally sensitive person has listened to the alleged victim and concluded that the person is credible -- and that is the end of the investigation," Beal said.
"We've already destroyed the priest's reputation by pulling him out of the parish and placing him on administrative leave. You might as well go in there and ask a few questions."
Credibility does not mean mere sincerity, Wuerl said. It requires both a story that is consistent with known facts about the priest's assignments and some additional investigation.
"I don't think an accusation in itself establishes a credible charge. There has to be some corroborating, supporting material, " Wuerl said.
While Cafardi doubts that many bishops or review boards are inclined to railroad innocent priests, he agreed with Beal that the term "credible" needs to be defined. "Credible, to me, means substantiated," Cafardi said.