Law and the Protection of Children
Interview with U.S. Scholar Edward Peters on the Revised Norms
ANN ARBOR, Michigan, DEC. 12, 2002 (Zenit.org).-
Will the U.S. bishops' revised "Charter for the Protection of Children and
Young People" help remedy the clergy sex-abuse scandals?
For a perspective on the problem, ZENIT turned to Dr.Edward Peters,
professor of canon law at Ave Maria University and author of the English
translation of "The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law" (Ignatius
ZENIT: The revised Charter
for the Protection of Children and Young People is ready to be enforced in
the United States, but don't some observers fear that its norms will offer only
second-class protection to victims?
Peters: Certainly some critics have made that claim. Various victims'
groups have concluded -- somewhat understandably, I think -- that the Church's
system of accountability was tried, and it failed. But they're wrong.
What happened was that too many, including bishops, actually ignored our
canonical legal system as this crisis mounted. This is where I think the failure
should be chiefly located.
Q: What would you suggest explains this neglect of canon law?
Peters: I think several factors contributed. First, as everyone knows,
there has been a general attitude of "antinomianism," or suspicion of
law itself, in many Church circles since the Second Vatican Council.
The legitimate pastoral character of the council was seized on by some as an
excuse to downplay the importance of law and of sound procedures in
ecclesiastical life, making it much more difficult for the proper role of law in
any society, including one like the Church, to be fully appreciated.
Second, many of the men who are now bishops received little formal canonical
training during their seminary days so they were less aware of the numerous
canonical aspects of their ministry and thus less inclined to look to canonists
for advice over the years. Compound that with, for example, the steady drop in
the number of canon lawyers over the years caused by fewer bishops sending fewer
clerics and laity to study canon law, and so on.
Suffice it to say, though, that the last few years have seen some dramatic
improvements in each of these areas. The most recent example was just last
month, when the Congregation for Catholic Education extended the training
requirements for those wishing to serve as canon lawyers. Today, individuals at
all levels of Church life have a much better understanding of the importance of
Church law and, in due time, there will be more and better-trained canonists
available to meet those needs.
Q: Do you think the revised norms will make a major difference in protecting
children from abuse?
Peters: Yes, I think they will. The revised norms and, for that matter,
the crisis that led up to them, have sent a clear message throughout the
episcopate, not just of the United States but around the world, that canon law
and the accumulated pastoral wisdom of the centuries that it contains cannot be
ignored in our day without grave peril.
I think the greatest strength of the revised norms is precisely their bold
reiteration of our system of canon law, in developing a more workable definition
of clerical sexual misconduct than came out of Dallas, by pinpointing the
diocesan bishop's immediate responsibility to conduct meaningful investigations
with the assistance of experts and demanding the objectively fair application of
canonical criminal procedure, and by imposing serious consequences for clerical
Q: And yet, the norms have come under criticism from media and victims'
groups largely because of their explicit relation to the Code of Canon Law. How
would you explain the value of canon law to a skeptical, secular audience?
Peters: Well, first I would candidly acknowledge that these are indeed
very difficult days to convince a skeptic that canon law can respond adequately
to their needs.
But, depending on the group, I might point out, for example, that the Church's
legal system is the oldest continuously functioning one in the Western world,
and that it has served the Church as she faced crisis after crisis, some of them
coming from the outside, some from the inside, but always as one of the chief
means by which the Holy Spirit has helped the Church meet the immediate
I would have to be clear, of course, that no legal system can succeed if it is
not applied. And that, I am afraid, is in large part what happened with regard
to this crisis.
Q: What were the main deficiencies of the original norms approved last June
in regard to sex-abuse allegations?
Peters: The main deficiencies are precisely the ones that the Vatican and
the special U.S. team of bishops remedied, namely, the almost complete neglect
of the procedures long-established, but too seldom followed, in canon law to
deal with delictual behavior among Catholics, and the novel attempt to set up a
parallel system of investigation and adjudication that was cut off from the
diocesan bishop's proper authority over the discipline of clergy. All of those
problematic aspects have been removed from or remedied in the revised norms.
Q: As a canon lawyer yourself, are there elements in the revised norms you
see that still have not been addressed completely?
Peters: I think there are some. For example, the revised norms speak of
granting canonical counsel to accused priests but make no mention of accused
deacons. Actually, though, Canon 1481 already requires that defendants in all
criminal cases have canonical counsel, so I think the norms are oddly phrased
Also, and this is going to require some careful thinking, there is no clear
description of the "ecclesiastical ministry" from which convicted
clerics are to be removed. But the question remains as to whether there are any
ecclesiastical positions that could be held by such clerics, if such positions
offered no opportunity for contact with minors.
Or again, neither the original proposed norms nor the revised norms offered any
concrete ways to follow up on their own call to restore the good name of those
wrongfully accused, and surely there are some clerics wrongfully accused who
will labor for years under the cloud of those unjust accusations. Perhaps this
is beyond the ability of the norms to address, though I would suggest that, here
again, canon law already takes a pretty dim view of false denunciations by
having Canons 1390 and 1391 on the books.
Q: Since canon law is not, as some think, an inherently secretive process,
what is its public component?
Peters: Well, first, the very laws under which the Church operates are
available for all to see. The Code of Canon Law is widely available in almost
every modern language now. And one doesn't have to be a canon lawyer to
understand that according to canon law certain behavior is a crime, and that
certain specific Church officers have responsibility to investigate these
accusations, and that if they are proven, certain severe penalties can be
By the way, while it is true that canonical trials have never had the same
"public" character that we are used to having, at least theoretically,
in the common law arena, Canon 1470 of 1983 Code does allow diocesan bishops to
make allowance for certain persons who are not parties to the case to attend
Q: Does canon law in any way preclude civil law responsibility -- or civil
Peters: Not at all. The two legal systems operate independently of each
other, if at times cooperatively.
Canon 22 states the Church's willingness to work within whatever civil legal
system in which she finds herself, subject only to her prior obligations to
uphold divine and canon law. Because there is nothing contrary to divine or
canon law in the state's prosecution of a member of the clergy for child sexual
abuse, the Church can cooperate in those actions.
At the same time, however, the Church must be on guard, lest state officials use
this crisis as a pretext to pursue an anti-Catholic agenda.
Q: From a legal point of view, are the scandals damaging Church relations
with civil authorities?
Peters: Well, my sense is that state officials know that Catholic bishops
regard this kind of criminal activity as deplorable, but what we've lost is the
"benefit of the doubt" among those officials that we will deal with
the problem swiftly and competently ourselves, especially proactively by way of
prevention, but also by way of effective punishment of offenders and restitution
to victims within our own system.
That kind of trust, once lost, will take a long time to regain. But I am
confident it will be done in time.
Q: Could this reflect on freedom-of-religion issues?
Peters: There are certainly some in the state who would gladly seize on
any occasion to curb our liberties, and this crisis does seem to offer some
pretext for interfering in ecclesiastical administration.
But if we are forthright about our repentance for the sins of our brothers and
the neglect of too many of our bishops -- and here I think Bishop Wilton
Gregory's speech last June in Dallas was a superb articulation of this
repentance -- then we will all be in a much better position to defend our rights
against possible opportunistic encroachments by the state. +++
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