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Edward Peters

The following observations represent my opinions. While I believe that the opinions expressed here are consistent with c. 212 § 3, I submit all to the ultimate judgment of the Catholic Church. The letter “c.” stands for “canon” of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. All translations are mine, even if they coincide at times with those of others. Dr. Edward N. Peters

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In the Light of the Law:

a canon lawyer's blog on current issues

Blog Archives 2002


The Baltimore Verdict

17 December 2002


To no one’s great surprise, the man who admitted shooting a priest three times in broad daylight was found Not Guilty by a Baltimore jury that believed he was, at the time of what prosecutors argued was plainly attempted murder, suffering from a “dissociative disorder”, itself the result of the man's being (and no one seriously doubts this) sexually abused by the priest a decade ago. My criticism is not so much of the verdict (however much it reinforces the quip that the innocent want a trial by judge while the guilty go for a jury) for clearly, the trauma of childhood sexual abuse can result in a legion of psychological and emotional disorders perduring for years. The greater problems, as I see it, are the reactions to that verdict.


First, the exonerated shooter is quoted as saying that he hopes the verdict will send a message of hope to other victims of clergy sexual abuse. Well, if I may ask, just what message of hope could that be? That they too might suffer from dissociative disorders and might as a result find themselves shooting priests in the street? Presumably, that is all the verdict said about the man’s actions in this case, and that does not sound very “hopeful” to me. If the man sees more than that in the verdict, it makes one wonder just how sincerely his insanity defense was offered in the first place.


Pope Paul VI 

Si vis pacem,

cole iustitiam.

Second, Baltimore’s William Cardinal Keeler, (who, in full view of the jury, stopped to shake hands and exchange cordialities with the priest's assailant on his way to the witness stand) says he hopes that the verdict brings a measure of peace to the community. But didn’t Pope Paul VI teach us that peace is the fruit of justice? If so, the highly dubious quality of the scant justice wrought in this case leaves little basis for the Cardinal’s hopes.

For decades, many Catholic priests inflicted grave injustices on children, and many Catholic bishops responded, if at all, wholly inadequately to those crimes. During most of that time, civil authorities looked the other way, too. In other words, the two greatest social institutions, the Church and the State, grievously withheld basic justice from young victims. We should not be surprised, then, that we, like other societies abandoning the rule of law, now see, quite literally, violent consequences in our streets.


Nevertheless, those who tell us that the Baltimore verdict is the dawn of hope for victims and a harbinger of peace for the community are false prophets. Instead, I suggest the Baltimore verdict is a tragic endorsement of a savage response to a despicable crime.+++


Friendly Fire

15 December 2002


According to a Dec 15 article by Marion Lloyd in the Boston Globe:


Sometimes people on the same side of an issue say things that they think are helpful to their friends, but in reality this "friendly fire" might harm the efforts of their allies. I believe this might have happened in the present case.


Catholic officials [in Mexico] voiced sympathy for [Bernard Cardinal Law] the disgraced Boston prelate. ''This should not be taken as an admission of guilt,'' Bishop Abelardo Alvarado Alcantara, secretary general of the Conference of Mexican Bishops, said Friday. ''Due to the enormous pressure from dissident groups, including priests, he generously decided to do what he felt was his duty ... in the best interest of his diocese.''


A resignation is not an admission of guilt per se, but neither is it a ringing reiteration of one's defense. Cardinal Law's resignation should have been firmly presented and accepted months ago because it was fundamentally the right thing to do. Instead, the delay gave some dissident voices the opportunity to pile on the beleaguered prelate (whom they opposed for, shall we say, less noble reasons) and left the impression that his announcement was a capitulation to pressure, instead of an action justified in itself.


Alcantara said he thought Law had been unfairly judged for his past actions by the stricter standards of responsibility that have emerged as the result of the priest sex scandal.


I must question the implication that canonical norms against clerical sexual misconduct have significantly changed here or that the obligation of bishops to protect their flocks from clerical sexual predators is something new in canon law. But the point is, however, irrelevant because what "brought down" the Cardinal are not actions from decades ago, but decisions made by him in just the last few years.


''It's as if we wanted to judge crimes today that at the time weren't considered serious,'' Alcantara said. ''The bishop can't be expected to denounce a priest and hand him over to a civil judge. It's like when a father knows his son is guilty, he tries to protect him and help him correct the mistake. It's a different mentality.''

I repeat, clerical sexual abuse of minors has always been grave violation of ecclesiastical discipline, and bishops have always known it. As for the analogy that suggests fathers ought to hide their criminal sons from the law, well, maybe it is a different mentality after all, but certainly it's one that loving fathers may responsibly reject.+++



The Manchester Agreement

11 December 2002


WASHINGTON (December 10, 2002) -- Belleville Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued the following Statement concerning the Agreement announced today between the Diocese of Manchester and the Office of the Attorney General of the State of New Hampshire:


One cannot but feel sympathy for Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of USCCB, upon whose watch four decades of clerical sexual misconduct have come home to roost. I realize that in his position, he (no more than anyone else would have been), is not entirely his own man, and I have on several occasions praised his earlier statements on this burgeoning crisis. But now, after reading the statement issued under his name on the Manchester agreement, I feel it is time for some criticism.


The Diocese of Manchester has reached a legally binding mutual agreement with the office of the Attorney General of New Hampshire which involves acknowledgment by the Diocese that the State has evidence likely to sustain a criminal conviction against the Diocese for a failure in its duty to care for young people.


The enormity of the admission in Paragraph 1 (a Catholic diocese admitted engaging in criminal conduct) calls for, before anything else, an immediate and profound expression of renewed sorrow. There is none.

I understand the pressures under which the Diocese acted, and I note that this resolution is specific to the facts in the Diocese of Manchester and to the laws of the State of New Hampshire. It does not in any way indicate agreement on the part of any other diocese or of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in the legal analysis on which the Office of the Attorney General of New Hampshire has acted.


Is Bp. Gregory suggesting that the “pressure under which the Diocese acted” should temper our reading of its admission? Does the Diocese admit to criminal activity, or not? If so, was its admission free, or not? If it was free, what matters whether pressures deriving from diocesan criminal misconduct were present? And why protest that the Manchester agreement in no way reflects the opinions of other dioceses or the USCCB? What question is being raised here?


However, there are elements in the agreement which parallel the bishops' own decisions last June which are embodied in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." 


This statement actually means so little, that it cannot be commented upon.

In particular, the idea that an audit function would be helpful in resolving this terrible problem permanently was adopted with the creation of the Office of Child and Youth Protection. With its director, Kathleen McChesney, in place, every diocese will now benefit by an audit of their efforts to keep children safe.


Phrases like “audit function” reinforce the pervasively bureaucratic appearance of the bishops’ response to what is fundamentally, at every level, a moral crisis. The cold phrase “audit function” rings in most ears as dealing with financial concerns. It is incumbent on authors to explain their idiosyncratic usage of terms common from other fields.


We did this because, as bishops individually and collectively have acknowledged, there were mistakes and failures in our handling of cases of abuse of minors by clergy. 

Bp. Gregory speaks of  “mistakes and failings.” Just “mistakes and failings”? How about “sins”, or even “crimes”? Isn’t that what the Manchester  agreement concedes? One doesn’t face prosecution for “mistakes”, one faces it for crimes. Avoidance of that stark term fools no one. Of course, if the Diocese does not feel it engaged in criminal activity, it should say so. But if the Diocese concludes that its activities were criminal, others have little basis to doubt that admission.


They were serious ones, but they are not attributable to intentionally bad acts but, most often, to a lack of awareness of the extent to which this behavior entails a deep sickness which is resistant to treatment.

Does Bp. Gregory think the only crimes for which one should be prosecuted are “intentional” crimes? No one I know is suggesting that bishops routinely assigned sexual miscreants with the intention that they would abuse minors, rather, the claim is that some bishops were criminally negligent in their toleration of these men in church work. As for whether the misconduct was a result of a “deep sickness”, well, I think we can agree, some were. But were all of them so? What do we think about those cases? By the way, could not this same “deep sickness” defense be used to defend, say, a drunk driver who goes out and kills people, albeit unintentionally? I ask, so what?


The errors of specific persons, at specific times and places which may have endangered children, cannot be attributed to the "Church" as a whole without overlooking the lives of integrity and good works of ministers of the Church in our country throughout its history.

"May" have endangered children? May? This paragraph plainly tries to paint a very narrow picture (“specific persons, at specific times and places”) of a very broad, even systemic, problem. It’s yet another attempt at bureaucratic minimalization. No one honestly doubts but that thousands of fine Catholic priests have been at work over the last 40 years. That does not excuse the episcopal toleration of hundreds of sexual offenders in clerical ranks for decades. To try to avoid saying that, and saying it plainly, is but to fan the flames of cover-up suspicion already raging out of control. It certainly does not ring as true as did Bp. Gregory’s fine statements this past summer.


There is a difference between mistakes and intentional wrong doing. 

Never talk down to readers. This crisis is not about mere "mistakes". And we are not talking (at least in regard to most bishops, a distinction Bp. Gregory himself admits later) about intentional episcopal wrong-doing. We are talking about the huge middle possibility of culpably negligent episcopal behavior. That is what people want to hear bishops, where appropriate, admit to frankly and without bureaucratic dissimulation or word-mincing.


As Church leaders, we are willing to own up to our mistakes. However, except for those very few who personally have also been perpetrators, church leaders have not intentionally endangered the welfare of children. 


We will always repent of the mistakes that resulted in abusers being kept on in ministry to hurt and abuse more children. We give our full support to means, such the Office of Child and Youth Protection, which will help us prevent abuse in the future.

One does not “repent” of “mistakes”. One learns from them. One repents from sins. Bishops should be unequivocally holding themselves to that standard, and they should be calling the rest of us to repent of ours. Also, among the welcomed “means” for preventing child abuse in the future, does Bp. Gregory include agreements like Machester's, or not? I hadn’t thought it was a question till I read this statement. Now, I’m not sure.+++


Standard Cardinal Coat of Arms


Cardinal archbishops, like all ecclesiastical office holders, may resign their sees for any just cause (c. 187). The reasons that suggest the appropriateness of a pastor resigning his parish (cc. 1740-1741) would, mutatis mutandis, be relevant to the case of an archbishop considering resigning his see.


       If a cardinal resigns his pastoral or curial office (indeed all are requested to do at age 75 anyway, cc. 354 & 401) he does not thereby lose the power of voting in a papal conclave. That, he retains until age 80, at which point his right to vote automatically lapses. 


There is no mechanism for forcing a given cardinal to attend a papal conclave, however, and Church law expressly allows a conclave to proceed despite the absence of one or more cardinal electors, though in such circumstances, it is expected that a cardinal who declines to attend, presumably for grave reasons, will so inform the conclave. 


Anti-Catholic U.S. Media

[4 December 2002]

On Dec. 3, 2002, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made the following comments at a conference in Spain: “In the Church, priests also are sinners. But I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign, as the percentage of these offenses among priests is not higher than in other categories, and perhaps it is even lower. In the United States, there is constant news on this topic, but less than 1% of priests are guilty of acts of this type. The constant presence of these news items does not correspond to the objectivity of the information nor to the statistical objectivity of the facts. Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated, that there is a desire to discredit the Church. It is a logical and well-founded conclusion.” Source: Zenit ZE02120324.

"Maria Monk"


I agree with the Cardinal. I would simply add, though, as one who has watched, and tried to fight, anti-Catholicism in the US media throughout my adult life, that even the most outrageous accusations of the infamous Maria Monk canard pale against the real life deeds of scores, if not hundreds, of our priests, frequently with the knowledge of, or at least the culpably negligent ignorance by, our bishops. Anti-Catholics in the US media have no need for lies when the truth condemns. Yes, our enemies rejoice over us. But it is we who have betrayed the City into their hands. God surely sees the hearts of those who hate the Church and delight in its suffering. But, in the meantime, each of us has contributed to this debacle by our own sins, and, just as surely, we must each contribute to the Church’s recovery by our own acts of personal repentance. +++


Extending canonical training

 20 November 2002

Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, one of the Vatican's most respected canon lawyers, 

directs the Congregation for Education.


The Congregation for Education, the Vatican dicastery that accredits pontifical faculties around the world, announced November 19 in its decree Novo Codice, that it will henceforth require a third year of full-time canonical studies for the degree of licentiate in canon law (J.C.L.). The Congregation also reiterated its expectation that all canonists, notwithstanding the wide availability of basically reliable canonical translations, still be able to read Latin, the official language of canon law. Moreover, the practice of waiving First-Cycle theology requirements for civil lawyers (a practice I am pleased to note was not adopted by my alma mater) has not only been prohibited, but an additional year of theological study will now be required of all incoming JCL students not already possessing a Masters in theology. All of these changes are steps in the right direction. They are, I suggest, more evidence that canon law continues its re-emergence from the cloud of antinomianism under which it has labored since the Second Vatican Council. 


Considering only, for example, how much of the recent clergy scandals in the USA can be traced to ignorance of, or disregard for, canonical directives in Church life, it's good to see Rome taking positive steps to augment the expertise of those who will be increasingly called upon to advise bishops and others on the juridical aspects of ecclesiastical ministries and apostolates. But these are only steps and more remains to be done to increase the vital professionalism of modern canon law. I’ll be addressing those points in due course.+++



The revised norms for handling allegations of clerical sexual misconduct are out, and while, strictly speaking, they still require approval from the USCCB and, once more even, from Rome itself, there is little doubt but that both ratifications will be secured promptly. Predictably, some are presenting the revised norms as virtual endorsements of the USCCB’s summer proposals, while some, conceivably, would like to cast the new norms as a trouncing of the bishops efforts. As usual, neither extreme interpretation is accurate.

As I had hoped, the bishops’ excellent Preamble remained virtually intact. Deftly, however, Rome chose the Preamble to insert a badly needed clarification as to what legally constituted the sexual abuse of minors (i.e., “an external, objectively grave violation of the Sixth Commandment”), thus remedying one the weakest parts of the bishops’ summer efforts.

The bishops’ call for all dioceses to file policies on sexual misconduct with the USCCB has been retained, but the revised norms now explicitly demand that such policies honor the requirements of procedural canon law (e.g., Canons 1717-1719).

The bishops’ plans to have outside boards conduct the canonically mandated investigations of clergy sexual abuse allegations has been rejected by Rome; such boards now merely advise bishops on what was, all along, their responsibility. Rome has also insisted that all the members of this board be Catholic (pace the USCCB’s press release on this point) albeit persons financially independent of the Church. In both respects these are major improvements over the original proposals.

The so-called “appellate review boards” are completely gone, saving the Church and the people she serves the confusion of a whole parallel system of institutions for dealing with just one kind of case. And the earlier skimpy outline of investigation procedures has been considerably beefed up by express references to various relevant canons that, all along, have been in force, waiting to be applied. Importantly, Rome has reiterated the rights of the accused not to be subjected to involuntary psychological investigation, I hope once and for all.

Both versions of the norms recognize that for even a single act of child sexual abuse an offending cleric will be removed permanently from ministry. Amen to that, especially now that the working definition of child sexual abuse is much less subjective than was earlier envisioned.

Two new and important provisions inserted by Rome remind bishops that 1) they already have what canonists call “executive power of governance” enabling them to deal promptly with potential abuse situations not immediately addressed by criminal canon law, and 2) that bishops can request from Rome, even without the cooperation or consent of the cleric in question, what is termed an ex officio dismissal from the clerical state for offensive behavior. It is, I suggest, another quiet affirmation that canon law was not lacking as this crisis mounted, it more often was simply not being applied.

We can leave to others the interesting, if largely irrelevant, question as to the degree to which the revised norms should be seen as endorsing the bishops’ original proposals from this summer. One’s time is better spent, I suggest, in identifying any possible remaining weaknesses in the policies (there are some, I think), and then getting about the task of protecting children from sexual predators among the clergy. +++

Francis Cdl. George

Chicago, IL

Abp. William Levada

San Francisco, CA

Bp. Thomas Doran

Rockford, IL

Bp. William Lori

Bridgeport, CN


The four American prelates who worked with Roman officials to obtain a significantly improved 

procedure for dealing with the crisis of clergy sexual misconduct with children. 



The authority of the Roman Pontiff to establish new mysteries in the Marian Rosary is certain (c. 331). As a result of Pope John Paul II issuing his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, the canonical directive to pray the rosary given to seminarians in Canon 246 § 3 and to those living the consecrated life in Canon 663 § 4 will now be observed by praying a rosary consisting of fours set of mysteries, instead of the traditional three.

For the rest of us, likewise, when we pray the rosary as an authentic devotion (see cc. 214, 839, & 1186) we will do so in light on the pope’s call to expand our meditation as outlined in Rosarium


There is, of course, no canonical obligation on us to pray the rosary at all, and for those who do so, the days suggested for praying specific mysteries are, strictly speaking, just that, suggestions. Other manners of praying (e.g., a decade a day, chosen in a way consistent with the liturgical season) are acceptable. Finally, the revised format of the Rosary is unquestionably eligible for indulgenced prayer in accord with Handbook of Indulgences, Other Grants, No. 48. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus! +++



The Vatican is about to reject, at least in substantial part, the USCCB’s novel proposals for dealing with the clerical sexual abuse of minors crisis. This is good news.

Except for its Preamble (which reads quite well, I think), almost the whole of the rest of the June 14th document was problematic. It failed to define terms, it ignored whole stretches of canonical criminal procedure, and, though billed as the charter for episcopal responsibility, it actually removed from bishops considerable authority for responding to these cases (on the Church’s behalf, no less) and delivered it to quasi-independent committees, themselves only vaguely configured.

Pope John Paul II

Man of Prayer, Man of Law

Chiefly, though, the Charter never recognized that the canons already on the books of the 1983 Code of Canon Law will, if applied responsibly, go a long, long way toward punishing wrong-doers, aiding victims, and preventing future abuse from occurring. The problem has not been the law. The problem all along, I suggest, has been too many bishops’ failure to apply canon law diligently. I see in the Vatican’s rejection of this proposed charter a clear directive to apply the canons now in force, and to the degree they might need reforming (canon law, like the Church, always needs some reforming), Rome will, as it has in the past, consider reasonable proposals.

Pope John Paul II is starting his 25th year in the Chair of Peter with a bang: a beautiful document updating the laity’s chief Marian devotion on one hand, and a firm reassertion of the measured application of disciplinary law on the other. Pro papa nostro, agimus Tibi gratias, Domine! +++



Update: (18 October): "When it comes to beating the Catholic Church", said G. K. Chesterton, "any stick will do." It's already started:


Hostile critics are charging the Vatican with everything from stupid curial blindness, to clerical wagon-circling, to an out-and-out cover-up, based on its rejection, for the most part, of the USCCB's proposed norms on clerical sexual misconduct. In reality, though, the Vatican wants bishops, not vaguely described committees, to take real responsibility for supervising Catholic clergy and allegations of misconduct; it wants canon law to be applied fairly and vigorously against such dangers, and will not countenance resort to ill-defined policies thrown together under media spot lights; and it even dares to suggest that in the flood of verified allegations of disgusting clerical misconduct, there are at least a few innocent priests (and others) who are being railroaded by the same disrespect for fundamental legal procedures that helped get us into this horrible mess in the first place.


A considerable number of the men who actually created this crisis, whether they be priests who engaged in gravely illicit behavior, bishops who did not recognize or did not act on that information, or some advisors who helped shape an attitude of neglect, are now gone from the scene, leaving others behind to clean up their mess. The lack of credibility that current committed Catholic leadership has on this topic is the price it has to pay for other's mistakes. So be it. Time and again the Church has experienced the pain of having wandered from its own published principles and the solution was rarely found in the concoction of new structures, committees, position papers, charters, and what have you, but rather the humble return to the perennial principles of sound moral, pastoral, and canonical wisdom.+++


Pro-Life Bishops vs. Pro-Abortion Politicians, 4 October 2004


The US bishops are planning a statement on the upcoming 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, i.e., the infamous case legalizing abortion in America. Since Black Monday, America's bishops have been unwavering in expressing their opposition to abortion. But if some of them feel it's perhaps time to go beyond words (yes, I know, some bishops have made sacrifices for life, efforts perhaps known but to themselves and God), at least two public canonical responses seem immediately worth considering.  


 1) Catholic politicians who support abortionism involve themselves in objective manifest grave sin (Evangelium vitae, 73). Such persons, to the extent that they persist in these misdeeds, make themselves ineligible for admission to Communion (c. 915). Diocesan bishops have the right and duty to see to the spiritual welfare of all those in their care (c. 383), of maintaining Catholic discipline on faith and morals (c. 392 § 1), and of preserving the Eucharist from unworthy reception (c. 392 § 2). The application of Canon 915 does not require a penal process, and therefore a bishop is free to shape his own approach to individual circumstances. I already wrote an extended canonical study of an actual case wherein a bishop applied Canon 915 against a pro-abortion politician, so I won't repeat those matters here. The point to take from this is that the norm is on the books, ready to be used.   

2) Canon law makes it a crime for Catholics to use "…public speeches, published writings, or other instruments of social communication to…gravely injure good morals…" (c. 1369). I think many of the activities of pro-abortion Catholic politicians, even in the act of casting their votes for death, to say nothing of the variety of  public affairs that politicians typically engage in, meet exactly the requirements of this canon, which visits upon its violators a "just penalty". While this canon is expressly a penal canon, demanding therefore the observance of penal procedural law (e.g., cc. 1341-1353), the flexible, indeterminate penalty makes Canon 1369 especially worth considering by bishops concerned to address the harm being caused by pro-abortion Catholics in politics. Moreover, contempt for what would likely be lesser penalties to start with can result in escalation of penalties against the recalcitrant (cc. 1393 & 1399). This canon too I have discussed in a recent interview. As with Canon 915, the law is already in effect. What's required is the will to use it. +++

It's a mortal sin to tell people 

that they may kill a pre-born child.




Plenary Council Concerns

3 October 2002


          Some weeks ago, a small but thoughtful group of US bishops proposed convoking what would be the "Fourth Plenary Council in America" in order to deal with the crisis of clerical sexual misconduct. Since then the list of supporters of the idea has slowly grown. A plenary council is, of course, a serious thing. It has genuine legislative authority (c. 445), a power that is not widely distributed in the Church (c. 135). An examination of the canons on plenary councils (cc. 439-446), however, raises some questions that need to be addressed before moving forward. In brief, the problem is not the council, it's the conference.

        Specifically, the United Stated Conference of Catholic Bishops (the recently reorganized USCCB) would have almost complete agenda-making and conduct-governing authority over a national plenary council (c. 441). But this is the same conference on whose watch the clergy misconduct crisis has festered for years. Its efforts to address priestly misconduct (and there have been some efforts, to be sure) have not generally been such as to inspire confidence among the faithful yet.

The last Plenary Council for the United States met 

in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1884.

            One might counter that, at least in part, some of the bishops who made up the conference in years past (when little was being done nationally to check priestly misbehavior) have since retired, leaving relatively more influence to recent appointees. These, there is reason to hope, seem more willing to confront criminal behavior in the ranks of their priests. Ah, but this raises a second concern, namely, that the conference is empowered to invite even retired bishops to a plenary council, which in turn would be required to give them a deliberative vote (c. 443 § 2). Such an action would dilute the influence of exactly those newer bishops whose voices most need to be heard.

            A plenary council, if one is held, should limit its agenda to the topic of clergy sexual misconduct and only active bishops who have to face the crisis here and now should be invited with a deliberative vote. Finally, the Holy See needs to communicate that it is truly ready and willing to reject any legislation that might be inconsistent with genuine Catholic character (c. 446). +++


Update, November 10: The November issue of Catholic World Report, pp. 32-33, features opinions from several prominent US Catholic observers on the advisability of convoking a Plenary Council for America.


Kneeling for Communion

2 October 2002

If all things were equal—and they never are—but if all things were equal, I would prefer to see people receive Holy Communion standing. I personally like the symbolism of those who have been raised to new life in Christ receiving Him standing, as was done in the early Church. But this “ancient practice” argument cannot be pressed very far, at least not unless one is also willing to go back, say, to seven-years-on-bread-and-water penances. The selectivity of those who argue for the return of some ancient practices while avoiding, if not vetting, others, borders on the hypocritical.

            But I would never dream of withholding, or of countenancing the withholding of, the Eucharist from someone because of their choice to receive Jesus kneeling. This gesture of reverence for the real and substantial presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist has as distinguished a pedigree in the Church as does the erect posture. Besides, among fully-initiated Catholics (c. 842 § 1) who have observed a one-hour fast (c. 919 § 1), only “the excommunicated, interdicted…or others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” are to be denied the Eucharist (c. 915. See also cc. 213, 843 § 1, & 912). It is inexcusable to treat devout Catholics who choose to receive Holy Communion on their knees as if they were suddenly grave sinners.  


If nothing else, the timing of this change is wrong. Instead of removing a traditional sign of belief in the Eucharist at the very time when most studies show Catholic belief in that mystery to be at modern lows, we should welcome a reasonable and popular gesture of faith in the Blessed Sacrament. Finally, if a change in discipline does come, it would be nice if, for a change, it were not sprung on loyal but bewildered Catholics who have been encouraged in one practice for years, only to be chastised for not reading the latest liturgical tea leaves quickly enough to suit the makers of liturgical morals. The faithful deserve some pastoral preparation. +++



Abp. George Pell


          Archbishop George Pell of Sydney Australia should not have surrendered his ecclesiastical authority for an indeterminate period of time. His gesture of 20 August 2002 in response to sexual misconduct accusations against him is meant to convey his willingness to undergo the rigors of investigation and his confidence about his own vindication. It is obviously well-intentioned. It has the air of a “class act” undertaken by a true gentleman (not surprising, considering that is exactly what Archbishop Pell is.) 


         But it has no foundation in a canon law system that only recognizes only outright resignation from episcopal office (c. 401) or, more rarely, a declaration that a see has been “impeded” (c. 412) by conditions clearly not satisfied under the present circumstances. As archbishop, moreover, Dr. Pell could not have used his powers to interfere with various investigations that were being conducted independently of his office in the first place. His action therefore, already extra legem (outside the law, but not exactly contrary to it), accomplishes little concrete in the order of procedures.

What it does do, I am afraid, is to establish a dangerous precedent or “unwritten expectation” for others. If a man as upright and as innocent as (I believe) Archbishop Pell is will surrender high ecclesiastical office for an extended period of time on the flimsiest of accusations, what is to prevent every bishop, not to mention clerics or lay workers, from being held to that same unreasonable standard, especially given that few accusations are likely to be as obviously worthless as are those under which Archbishop Pell labors. Will not such expectations of “temporary resignations” now be demanded by every enemy of the Church who wants to gum up its administrative and pastoral life? Moreover, should Archbishop Pell now order, or even allow, one of his own faithful pastors or lay workers to drop his duties to Christ and His people in response to accusations that the archbishop himself might be certain are false? If so, at what point exactly does an investigation into these sorts of accusations end? This is far from clear, leaving the terminus of such an anomalous situation helplessly up in the air. If nothing else, these are some of the questions that need to be addressed before concluding in favor of the archbishop’s action. +++

Update 1: It is now October 8th, and the archbishop’s “accuser” is apparently still refusing to cooperate with a civil investigation of his allegations, all the while leaving Dr. Pell in a foggy accusational limbo. Let the investigations continue, but meanwhile the esteemed archbishop should declare his self-imposed exile over, and resume his praiseworthy leadership of the Church of Sydney. +++

Update 2: As of the 15th of October, an independent inquiry being unable to substantiate any of the accusations made against Abp. Pell, he has resumed his duties. Deo gratias. +++

Prof. Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, distinguished dean of the canon law faculty at Rome’s influential Gregorian University, is reported to have said recently “From a canon law perspective, the bishop and the [religious] superior are neither morally nor judicially responsible for the acts committed by one of their clergy.” (Assoc. Press, 18 May 2002, article by Tom Rachman).  

Perhaps Professor Ghirlanda was misquoted or his remarks taken out of context. In any case, the claim that bishops and religious superiors are neither morally nor judicially responsible for acts of their clergy seems difficult to reconcile with Canon 128 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law that states: “Whoever unlawfully causes harm to another by a juridical act, or indeed by any other act which is deceitful or culpable (actu dolo vel culpa posito), is obliged to repair the damage done. (British trans.)” The Americans render the operative phrase “with malice or negligence”. Either way, the canon (one, incidentally, that greatly expands the scope of ecclesiastical liability for malfeasance in office over its 1917 Code counterpart, Canon 1681) is a clear enunciation of the obligation of persons in the Church (there being no exemption for bishops in this regard) to make good harms unlawfully caused as a result of their actions or omissions.  

The pertinent claim is that the some bishops (not all, but at least some) placed priests known to them to be pederasts or homosexually active in positions wherein they could and did sexually abuse minors. A man who knows his hound snaps at children must not allow such an animal to run free through the neighborhood. If he does so, and if a child is bitten by such a dog, the owner, I suggest, is morally and juridically liable not for biting children himself, obviously, but for knowingly allowing a situation to arise wherein children could predictably be bitten by his dog. The same would seem to apply to bishops who knowingly assigned to parish ministry priests with a known proclivity to toward sex with minors.

Bp. Wilton Gregory outlined an approach 

to episcopal responsibility for clerical misconduct cases that was forthright and balanced. Read his June 13th address.

If that analogy limps in some ways (e.g., dogs don’t have free will, but priests do), consider the case of one man who freely lends his automobile to another despite knowing that the other is a reckless driver. The owner’s good driving record is not at issue when the other man causes a tragic accident, but his prudence in helping to make possible the crash by enabling the reckless man to have access to a car, is.


Of course, in these dark days, some wish to impose to a “strict liability” standard on bishops in all priestly sex abuse cases, holding bishops financially responsible for harms caused by their priests notwithstanding the bishop’s lack of knowledge of the danger. This is wrong and unjust. Others, in cases of some genuine liability on the part of the bishop, wish to exaggerate that liability out of anger or greed. This is opportunism. Both approaches should be rejected.


              But I believe it is a mistake to make the blanket claim that there is no canonical basis for episcopal liability for harms arising from priestly misconduct. There is a basis for such liability in canon law. Only a fair, case-by-case, examination of the facts will determine whether such liability is warranted in a given case, and if so, how much compensation should be awarded. +++  


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