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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 01/28/2004 3:57 PM ET

Some canon lawyers say due process limited for accused priests

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As U.S. dioceses prepare to evaluate the cases of clerics accused of sex abuse of minors, several canon lawyers defending accused priests have complained that the procedures limit due process for their clients.

"Under church law you are innocent until proven guilty," said Oblate Father Frank Morrisey, a canon lawyer who is defending several U.S. priests.

Yet, once a cleric has been accused, he is suspended from public ministry before being able to mount a defense, he said.

Critics say that this amounts to punishment without a proof of guilt.

Father Morrisey said that the accused has to wait months for the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has overall authority in sex abuse cases, to review the diocese's preliminary investigation and tell the diocese how to proceed in the case.

Another canon lawyer, Father Nicholas Rachford, said this delay puts accused priests in a state of "suspended animation."

Father Morrisey said to expect a six- to eight-month delay after a bishop sends the case to the doctrinal congregation.

Father Morrisey was a teacher at one of the 2003 seminars sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to train canon lawyers in the special norms adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 to deal with the sex abuse scandal. He is a canon law professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa.

Father Rachford said that the suspension from ministry before proof of guilt boils down to the loss of reputation of the accused.

"He is removed from ministry. He is removed from the rectory," said Father Rachford, tribunal judge for the Byzantine Eparchy of Parma, Ohio. "This is a loss of reputation as soon as he leaves the rectory."

An eparchy is the Eastern-rite equivalent of a diocese. Father Rachford is defending a Latin-rite priest.

The norms say that steps should be taken "to protect the reputation of the accused" during the preliminary investigation.

The special rules are known as the "Essential Norms" and they provide the legal framework for the U.S. bishops' policies outlined in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The norms cover priests and deacons.

Father Rachford said there seems to be a presumption of guilt with the presentation of the accusation, even before the preliminary investigation has been conducted.

Many priests are being suspended from public ministry right after the accusation although the norms say that suspension is to be imposed after the sending of the preliminary investigation to the doctrinal congregation, said Father Rachford, who attended one of the training seminars.

Father Ronny Jenkins, special consultant to the USCCB on the special norms, said that the suspension is applied "to protect the public just in case. It is not an indication of guilt."

An accused priest during the preliminary investigation does not have the formal due process that he would at a trial, but he retains basic rights, such as the right to his good name, said Father Jenkins.

"He can't be forced to admit to a crime, for instance," he added.

Church officials are also required to provide a church lawyer to an accused who is unable to provide for one, said Father Jenkins.

Regarding how fast the doctrinal congregation is getting back to dioceses, the time varies.

The Detroit Archdiocese got answers on two major cases "in a couple of months," said Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Walter A. Hurley, who handles sex abuse issues for the archdiocese. "It was not an unreasonable amount of time."

In one decision, the doctrinal congregation supported the action of Detroit Cardinal Adam J. Maida to laicize a priest. In the other case, it ordered a trial for a priest.

The Chicago Archdiocese waited about six months before it was informed to hold a trial for one priest, said Father Patrick Lagges, archdiocesan judicial vicar.

He said the archdiocese has 13 other cases still pending. About 10 were sent over at the end of July and the rest at the end of September, said Father Lagges.

Father Rachford said that he could not discuss specifics of the case he is defending. He said that it was sent "recently" to the Vatican and he expects that the decision will be to hold a trial.

"There seems to be evidence that child abuse took place, so counterevidence needs to come forward which would best be done at a trial," he said.

Father Morrisey said that another problem in presenting a defense is that many cases happened decades ago.

Evidence and witnesses are hard to find and many cases could end up being decided on the word of the accuser versus that of the accused, he said.


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