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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 01/28/2004 3:44 PM ET

Bishops' sex abuse norms provide procedures for judging cases

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- To cope with the U.S. clergy sex abuse crisis, Catholic leaders have delved into the church's legal system to develop norms to punish offenders while offering due process to the accused.

The system includes cooperation with civil authorities and involves independent church procedures and penalties.

Throughout, the norms give the local bishop powers to investigate and process cases involving priests and deacons.

But the norms also have faced criticisms from opposite ends of the spectrum: sex abuse victims on one hand and church lawyers of accused clerics.

Victims have said that the procedures, such as church trials, are done in secret, without public scrutiny. This boils down to the church judging its own members without public accountability about how decisions were made or what evidence was weighed, victims' groups have said.

Canon lawyers defending accused priests complain of deficiencies in due process, such as suspending a priest from public ministry once a credible accusation has been received before the accused has the opportunity to mount a defense.

To help the bishops, 350 canon lawyers were trained in 2003 to apply the special rules for dealing with clergy sex abuse, said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

These trained jurists can serve as judges, lawyers for the defense and prosecutors, known in church language as "promoters of justice."

The bishops' special rules are called the "Essential Norms" and they provide the legal framework for the bishops' policies outlined in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The norms have Vatican approval and are up for review at the end of 2004 by the entire body of U.S. bishops.

All actions taken under the norms are automatically reviewed by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has overall church responsibility for deciding cases of clergy sex abuse of minors.

Already three trained lawyers have been chosen as judges for a trial which began in December in the Chicago Archdiocese. Several other dioceses are also preparing to hold church trials for accused priests, drawing judges from the specially trained canon lawyers.

In the Detroit Archdiocese, where a trial was being prepared, plans are to follow the recommendations of the USCCB and the Canon Law Society of America that the judges be drawn from among priests outside the diocese to avoid any semblance of favoritism or conflict of interest, said Father George Miller, judicial vicar.

Under church law a penal trial must have three judges and can have five if special circumstances warrant, such as the need to have some judges knowledgeable in the accused cleric's culture or language. The judges must be priests and the number of judges must be three or five so that their vote doesn't end in a tie.

The decision of the judges would be made public but the transcript and documentation would not, said Father Ronny Jenkins, special consultant to the USCCB for implementation of the norms.

Under the norms, dismissal from the clerical state is seen as the normal penalty for a priest judged guilty, said Father Jenkins, assistant canon law professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

But the judges could decide on lesser penalties which would still involve permanent removal from public ministry, he said. Special circumstances such as old age or serious illness could be cited to keep the accused in the clerical state while prohibiting public ministry and mandating restricted living conditions, said Father Jenkins.

A trial, however, is not the only option. A bishop or the Vatican can also penalize a priest using an administrative process if evidence is so overwhelming that a trial is deemed unnecessary. The bishop has the further option of asking a priest to seek laicization from the pope.

Before getting to the stage of determining punishment, however, several preliminary steps are needed.

When an accusation is presented to a bishop, the first step is to determine if it is credible, said Father Jenkins. "A semblance of truth is needed."

If credible, the bishop is to conduct a preliminary investigation to see if the accusation is substantial enough to warrant a formal process, said Father Jenkins.

During this investigation, the bishop may seek a statement from the accused but is not obliged to do so, said Father Jenkins.

The bishop appoints an investigator and the results of the investigation would be reviewed by the diocesan review board, which then would recommend actions to the bishop, he said.

The norms say that "when there is sufficient evidence that sex abuse of a minor has occurred" the bishop is to forward the case to the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, inform the accused of the results of the investigation, suspend the accused from public ministry and from church office, and place living restrictions on the accused.

The term commonly used for this suspension is "administrative leave."

Father Jenkins said that the diocese would be responsible for providing the suspended priest with food, housing and a salary during this administrative leave.

The information sent to the Vatican would include the bishop's conclusions and his recommendations for further action, said Father Jenkins.

The doctrinal congregation could reserve the case for itself, send back instructions for proceeding or tell the bishop to follow his own recommendations, he said.

Father Jenkins said that as a general rule the doctrinal congregation would return cases for diocesan action.

Throughout the process, church officials are required under the norms to cooperate with civil authorities and report allegations.

If police press criminal charges, church procedures should not interfere with civil actions, said Father Jenkins.

A bishop can decide to go slow or to put the church investigation on hold until the district attorney's investigation is completed, he said.

If local civil authorities decide on a trial, the results of the trial would have major influence on church procedures -- especially if there was an admission of guilt by the accused, he said. But the trial would not eliminate the need for independent church procedures because church law has its own standards as to what is a crime, he added.

Any church penal procedure -- whether a trial or an administrative process -- would be behind closed doors in keeping with the church's universal law, contained in the Code of Canon Law, governing such procedures.

The results of these proceedings also need to be sent to the Vatican's doctrinal congregation for review. A decision can also be appealed by any of the parties directly to the doctrinal congregation.


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