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Protecting the Innocent

June 3rd, 2011

Thomas G. Guarino

First Things Magazine

In an earlier essay on this site—and building upon the insights of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Cardinal Dulles—I argued that the norms of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, as presently implemented, are straining the theology of priesthood. In their desire to act quickly and to silence critics, the American bishops resorted to stringent measures that had the palpable effect of demoralizing priests and leading to a theologically unhealthy chasm between the episcopacy and the presbyterate.

The measures of the Dallas Charter do not apply (for canonical and administrative reasons) to the bishops themselves, so the uneasy specter of a double standard constantly hovers over the discussion. But perhaps new guidelines, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a circular letter dated May 3, 2011, can help the American bishops as they re-examine the Charter at their June meeting.

Let it first be said that both the CDF guidelines and the Dallas Charter share a single commendable purpose: to protect children from abusers. No plausible argument can be made that these documents mask or conceal the crime and sin that is sexual abuse. Some criticize these statements for being inadequately interested in the actual protection of minors. But one is left with the distinct impression that certain observers would be satisfied only if the hierarchical structure of the Church were itself overthrown.

The entire circular letter issued by the Congregation is worthy of study, but I will concentrate on the section labeled “The Support of Priests.” The passage starts with a simple sentence: “The bishop has the duty to treat all his priests as father and brother.” Given the connotations that “fatherhood” evokes, both naturally and theologically, this direct statement is a salutary reminder to bishops. They cannot regard a priest accused of abuse—or even convicted of it—as if they “do not know the man,” or as if he were simply a legal and financial burden, rather than always a son and a brother.

The document goes on to say that priests themselves must be well informed of the damage done to victims of abuse. Priests, then, cannot close their eyes to this horrendous tragedy, as if it were too ugly to concern them or as if the issue belongs at the margins of the Church’s life. The body of Christ has been deeply wounded by child abuse, and priests must stand with their bishops at the forefront of the healing process.

It is particularly heartening to see the Vatican guidelines assert a plain truth: “The accused cleric is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven.” This is a principle enshrined in the secular law of the United States and in most democracies around the world. The Dallas Charter, too, states clearly that priests are to be accorded “the presumption of innocence.” In actual fact, however, once an accusation deemed credible by various opaque criteria is leveled, the machinery of the Charter quickly engages and the accused priest—all too often—is hustled out of his assignment as if he were a convicted criminal.

Priests have rights, both civil and canonical, and a rush to judgment cannot be sanctioned. Child abuse is an abominable crime, but the appropriate response to an accusation must be equitable and judicious. Recent studies show that between 2009 and 2010 false or unsubstantiated accusations against priests rose by over forty percent. This statistic alone should give bishops pause when a weakly supported accusation emerges. The sword of Damocles should not dangle from a frayed thread.

Finally, the CDF document notes that even with the presumption of innocence, “the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the cleric’s ministry until the accusations are clarified” (emphasis added). This is an important sentence, showing the influence, I believe, of the procedures adopted by the German Episcopal Conference in 2010. The German guidelines state that an accused priest should be removed from ministry involving children but, after professional evaluation, he may still be able to engage in certain public aspects of priestly life.

The careful use of the word “limit” indicates that a truly just and even-handed response to an accusation of abuse must be based on a precise consideration of the circumstances surrounding it. Not every accusation ought to result in the priest’s immediate suspension from public ministry. Instead, the new CDF document opens the door to a prudent narrowing of the ministry of accused priests, thereby ensuring both a proper level of protection for minors as well as a necessary presumption of innocence for priests.

The recent CDF document takes child abuse with utter seriousness, balancing the demands of justice with the Church’s theology of priesthood. As the bishops re-examine the norms on abuse at their national meeting, one hopes they will find in the Vatican guidelines a principled source for theologically fortifying the Charter.

Rev. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University.


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