Opus Bono Sacerdotii
"Work for the Good of the Priesthood"
Network Recovery Tools Opus Bono Prayer for Priests DONATE
› Holy Bible
› Catechism
› Code of Catechism
› Code of Canon Law   



About Us
In the News
OBS Comments

Holy Bible
Code of Catechism
Code of Canon Law




Frequently Asked Questions

Submit a Question to Our Experts: FAQ@opusbono.org.

St. Thomas the Apostle

1. Are Diocese paying for Canon Lawyers, also are they paying for them in the preliminary stages as well? My diocese says they will not pay for me to be represented and that other diocese are not paying either.

Contrary to what you were informed by your diocese, many dioceses are paying for a canon lawyer in the preliminary stage as well. The bishop has a duty to protect the rights of his priests (canon 384) and it is hard to see how a priest's rights can be protected if he does not have canonical counsel at the preliminary stage, where the die is often cast. The Essential Norms say in Norm 8A: "For the sake of due process, the accused is to be encouraged to retain the assistance of civil and canonical counsel. When necessary, the diocese/eparchy will supply canonical counsel to a priest."

2. Does having a Canon Lawyer really make a difference?

Yes, having a canon lawyer does make a difference. Otherwise, you an accused priest is at the mercy of the arbitrary whim of the diocese. Many bishops are trying to force accused priests into accepting laicization. We would be happy to help you acquire canonical counsel, please email peteferrara@opusbono.org, or call Pete directly at (313) 937-6305.

3. I have heard horror stories about how priests have been "railroaded" by diocesan review boards, how long will it take for my canonical case?

Yes, there are many horror stories about how accused priests have been railroaded by diocesan review boards. However, in canon law a person is innocent until proven guilty. Defending yourself in a canonical process could take a couple of years, but your priesthood is worth fighting for. In time, the current hysteria should calm down and greater reason should prevail. Oremus pro invicem. Also, please see number 24. below.

4. What does it tell us priests when an accused bishop gets to have a thorough, professional investigation and an accused priest does not? I'm talking about these bishops that have been accused like Bishop Hubbard who gets to stay in ministry, defend his reputation publicly, and avoids a diocesan review board and any canonical process as well!

Of course, we are happy that Bishop Hubbard was afford a competent defense, however, it does seem to point to a double standard for bishops and priests: Please read our in-depth commentary at Bishops' Double Standard, OBS Statement on the case of Bishop Howard Hubbard.  Also see Ex-Prosecutor Puts Focus on Sex Claims Against a Bishop for background on Bishop Hubbard's case.

5. Can a bishop simply "fire" one of his priests? It seems like all they want to do with those of us accused is make us go away. I've never even been able to talk to my bishop directly.

Through ordination a priest becomes "incardinated" in a diocese or religious order. This is like being adopted into a family. The priest becomes like an adopted son in that particular church family. The bishop is a father to the priest. If a disciplinary problem later arises, the bishop or religious superior cannot "fire" the priest anymore than a parent can dismiss one of the family members. For better or worse, they are in this together. Unfortunately, some bishops do not talk to priests that have been accused.

6. I just read an article by Fr. Coughlin and wanted to know is there a good commentary on the Norms and Charter available in a book or pamphlet?

The Catholic Law Society of America (CLSA) has published an excellent commentary on the Essential Norms, called "Guide to the Implementation of the US Bishops Essential Norms ..." It is available for $10 from the CLSA publications office (301-362-8197). Also, you should contact your diocese to get a copy of their policies. Each diocese is required to have a set of policies for dealing with these matters. (By the way, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus who was also in that article was our founding theological advisor along with the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ)

7. In spot-checking a few diocesan websites, I found that Bishop Robert Lynch in St. Petersburg had a list of names of accused priests with the terminology "credible accusation." Credible by what standard? It seems hypocritical in view of his own settlement payment for a sexual harassment suit against him. What does “credible” mean? Is there a consistent definition?

The term credible as defined by some diocese seems to be taken from the psychological profession where by a statement made directly from a client to a therapist is termed "credible" whether or not the statement by the client is true is irrelevant. Of course, credible in this context has nothing to do with proof, but the ambiguity of terms like credible, substantive, or substantial gives the bishops a lot of flexibility in distancing themselves from accused priests and deflecting public pressure.

The word “credible” does not actually appear either in the Charter, in the Essential Norms, or in the Norms concerning the more grave delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which are the CDF’s norms which govern cases in which that Congregation has competence.  It appears that the term “credible” is being used in part to convey the meaning of an expression found in canon 1717, §1, of the Code of Canon Law that is also cited in the CDF’s Norms.  This expression is “notitiam saltem veri similem” which is translated in various ways. 

In the translation of the Code of Canon Law prepared by the Canon Law Society of America, this expression in canon 1717, §1, is translated:

Whenever an ordinary has knowledge, which at least seems true [notitiam saltem veri similem], of a delict, he is carefully to inquire personally or through another suitable  person about the facts, circumstances, and imputability, unless such an inquiry seems entirely superfluous.

The translation of the expression in the Norms concerning the more grave delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Article 13, is as follows:

Whenever the Ordinary or Hierarch receives a report of a reserved delict which has at least a semblance of truth [notitiam saltem veri similem], once the preliminary investigation has been completed, he is to communicate the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which, unless it calls the case to itself due to particular circumstances, will direct the Ordinary or Hierarch [how] to proceed further, with due regard, however, for the right to appeal against a sentence of the first instance only to the Supreme Tribunal of the same Congregation.

My own research into the Latin expression has determined that “veri similem” is a phrase that can properly be translated as “probable.”  This suggests that the phrase “notitiam saltem veri similem” can be translated “at least probable information.”  In the context of canon 1717, §1, this would suggest a translation that would state:

Whenever the ordinary has at least probable information concerning an offense, he shall cautiously inquire personally or through another suitable person about the facts and circumstances and about imputability unless this investigation appears to be entirely superfluous.

And a translation of the Article 13 of the CDF’s Norms, could be rendered: Whenever the Ordinary or Hierarch receives at least probable information of a reserved delict, once the preliminary investigation has been completed, he is to communicate the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which, unless it calls the case to itself due to particular circumstances, will direct the Ordinary or Hierarch [how] to proceed further, with due regard, however, for the right to appeal against a sentence of the first instance only to the Supreme Tribunal of the same Congregation.

All of this suggests to me that the expression “credible,” if it is being used to apply the principles expressed in these two texts, should be understood as “probable.”

In considering the “credible” or “probable” nature of an allegation, it is also very important to consider the level of certitude that the proofs must generate in order (1) to undertake a penal process and (2) to impose a penalty.  Canon 1718 notes that for the Ordinary to initiate the process to inflict a penalty, the evidence and proofs that have been gathered must “seem sufficient” [“satis … videantur”].   However, in order actually to impose a penalty, the evidence must be significantly stronger and demonstrate with moral certitude (1) that the offense occurred and (2) that the accused priest was gravely imputable (basically gravely responsible) in the commission of the offense by reason of his malice or culpability. 

“Moral certitude” far exceeds “credible,” “probable” or “sufficient.”  If the proofs that have been gathered cannot establish with moral certitude – which is akin to but not exactly the same as “beyond a reasonable doubt” – that an offense has been committed or that the accused is gravely responsibility by reason of his malice or culpability, then no penalty can be imposed; and there is no basis for the bishop even to pursue the process to impose a penalty. See also FAQ 41 below.

8. I know many of these accused priests are innocent, is there any bishop that has said anything about this?

Yes. In fact, Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles in his 2004 Archdiocesan report of sexual abuse stated it very succinctly:

"We must all resist the temptation to assume that because an allegation has been made, it is therefore true. We have experienced an unprecedented flood of allegations from the distant past.

While many of the claims are undoubtedly and tragically true, supported by consistent reports and sometimes even by the conviction of the perpetrator, there are also those that are demonstrably false. One alleged victim has now been convicted of extortion for making a false claim against the Cardinal (Mahony). Some claims are against priests who could not have been there in the place or at the time of the alleged crime. In one case, the allegation is against a priest who was between the ages of two and five at the time the abuse allegedly occurred. There are also examples of apparently mistaken identity.

The vast majority of the claims against priests fall elsewhere, impossible to responsibly verify or to disprove. The victim claims it occurred; the priest denies it or is deceased; and therefore there are no witnesses. It is also certain that some on the list who have been previously, publicly accused are innocent of the charges, but the charges have, in fact, been made."

9. I know of a priest that has been removed over an allegation involving an adult, does the Dallas Charter and Norms address this also? I thought it applied only to sexual abuse of children.

The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) Essential Norms do not apply to an incident involving an adult. In addition, a sexual offense involving an adult cannot be prosecuted under church law once a period of five years has passed since the alleged offense.

10. Could you please explain the following terms contained in a recent announcement from our Archdiocese: What is "canonical standard of proof" and what is "the semblance of truth"? Do these have any relationship to American Law like "innocent till proven guilty"? Can someone enlighten us?

The "canonical standard of proof" to impose penalties for a delict that has been committed is what canonists speak of as "moral certitude." It is similar to "beyond a reasonable doubt" that is used in state criminal courts to convict a person. It is a much stronger certitude than "preponderance of proofs" which is used in civil lawsuits. The "semblance of truth" basically means that an allegation that has been made is credible but not yet proven. It is a rendition of the Latin phrase "saltem veri similem" from canon 1717 which the Canon Law Society of America translation of the Code translates as "at least seems true." A better translation -- and one that Latinists agree -- is "probable" or "realistic." Basically, the canonical investigation of an alleged crime should not be implemented unless it appears "probable" or "realistic" that the delict took place. It's a bit stronger than "semblance" but is much more in keeping with the canonical principles that govern a penal process. Hopefully, if this hasn't confused you completely, it will be helpful.

11. My canonical advocate and I are pulling our hair out because of our bishop's "foot dragging" concerning my case. What can we do?

Whenever there seems to be any type of "foot dragging", lack of information, or refusal to discuss a case, the priest and/or his advocate should immediately send off a defense brief to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Even if the information is that the priest simply denies the allegation despite any other factors that may surface, the right of defense should be questioned and the priest’s position should be clearly stated. This advice comes from a case where the bishop refused to share any information prior to sending the case to the CDF. He gave the impression that he was not going to take any steps until the case was reviewed by the CDF and direction given to him. In an effort to abide by the bishop’s interpretation of the law (i.e., that an “advocate” is only permissible in a trial) he asked for and received an administrative laicization of the priest. There was no right of defense and no communication with the priest or the advocate about this possibility. The result came as a complete surprise and was contrary to the information shared by the bishop.

12. Does it matter canonically if a lesser plea, for example, non-sexual, misdemeanor, in a criminal sexual case is accepted in order to avoid the risk of being found guilty and going to jail?

Be very careful about agreeing to a plea of a "lesser charge" instead of pleading not guilty to the original charge. Canonically, the fact that you have pleaded guilty to a lesser offense can be used against you in the ecclesiastical forum and canonical penalties imposed on the basis of admission on your part. Before you enter into any sort of plea agreement, it is very important that you discuss the matter fully with your attorney and with a canon lawyer.

13. The allegations against me have never been investigated, they are simply accepted on face value, even though the bishop knows that they are false. How many other priests have had the allegations against them actually investigated?

The problem of the Church not investigating allegations in a competent fashion is a very common problem. Some dioceses do not have trained investigators in place; others simply depend on police reports; and others just hope that everything will "go away" and do nothing. The unfortunate result is that guys are left hanging, or unconfirmed and uncorroborated police reports are considered "proof" that an allegations is true and proven. At the same time, there are some dioceses out there that do do this whole thing correctly and competentlly. Any time an accused priest feels that his case is not being properly investigated, he has the right to take the matter directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and seek their direct intervention in the matter.  It is most important to seek the services of a canon lawyer in preparing such a petition, as it will be important to present all available exculpatory proofs and a strong canonical argument related to the charges.

14. Is the diocesan review board supposed to investigate priest accusations?

The diocesan review board is not supposed to be an investigative body. Their responsibility is to review the investigative materials that are gathered by the designated diocesan investigator and then provide consultation to the bishop.

15. What happened to the religious communities who said they were not going to adopt the "zero tolerance" policy of the US Bishops?

Because religious communities have to operate inside of US dioceses, some bishops have made it very clear that they will withdraw their permission for faculties of any religious priests ministering in their diocese that has been accused. Many religious superiors are also afraid that if they don't follow the "zero tolerance" policy, the bishop may go further and inhibit their ability to function effectively as a religious community within the diocese.

16. My diocese refuses to tell me of what I am accused of doing, refuses to provide a place to live, funds for an advocate and thus I am forced to move into a smaller and poorer living situation, and I am now taking on debts that I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay back in order just to live. Am I the only one experiencing this kind of treatment? Is my situation unique?

Unfortunately your situation is not unique. Some dioceses are cutting back salaries for accused priests and refusing to fund canonical advocates let alone other legal representation or any additional costs for living expenses like room and board. Like you, many accused priests are mounting debt, especially credit card debt, because the diocese has them in limbo. If they can get work it is is at minimum wage because the higher paying positions require references and work history (securing meaningful work is next to impossible when you have to admit that you have a pending investigation or you have been placed on leave by your bishop for an accusation of child sexual abuse). Please see the answers to questions #1 and #2 above and we encourage you to seek canonical assistance immediately. Also, please email joemaher@opusbono.org immediately requesting financial hardship assistance. Although the financial aid list is very long, and we help on a first-come-first-serve basis as funds come in (exceptions are sometimes made in criminal cases where time is of the essence) we try to be as timely as possible in granting with the funds we have available. You may also contact us for a canon lawyer as well by emailing peteferrara@opusbono.org.

17. I have a benefactor that would like to give me financial help, but if he writes the check to me there is no tax benefit for him. Can he make a donation to Opus Bono Sacerdotii and then somehow give me a grant? Also, isn't this shown as income and I'm liable then for income tax?

Benefactors who wish to donate to Opus Bono Sacerdotii and receive a tax deduction for a specific priest may do so by writing in the memo field of their donation check the name of the priest they would like the funds applied to. Opus Bono Sacerdotii does its best to honor the wishes of its benefactors. In addition, some benefactors wish to split up their donation for several priests or make a contribution to Opus Bono Sacerdotii and that is greatly appreciated and can be done by enclosing a note stating how they would like the funds to be used. As far as the income tax issue, you should check with your local accountant or seek one out in your local area for professional advice. However, we do make grant payments directly to attorneys, counselors, or others like landlords, health insurance providers, auto loan companies, etc. so that the monies granted go directly to the creditor and not to you as income. We try to be as flexible as we can within the parameters of the Tax Code.

18. What does the recent letter Wilton Gregory received from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about refusing certain cases mean?

The full text of the letter can be viewed at CDF Ruling on Refusal of Certain Cases. Essentially, the CDF is saying that after November 21, 2004 (The Solemnity of Christ the King), they will no longer accept for the purposes of the imposition of penalties any case already "denounced" to the Ordinary before April 30, 2001, if prescription (the canonical statute of limitations) has lapsed.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but basically what it means is that if the bishop is aware of an allegation predating April 30, 2001, in which the alleged victim is 28 years of age, he only has till November 21, 2004, to bring the matter to CDF if he wants a penalty imposed. After that, he can only deal with these older allegations in a non-penal way. The CDF will not consider the imposition of a penalty, and they will not authorize the bishop to impose penalties on the older cases after November 21. Since the "graviora delicta" are served to CDF, the bishop cannot impose penalties unless authorized by the CDF.

However, the bishop can still address these cases administratively. Most frequently, bishops are using the principle expressed in canon 223, §2, in dealing with them. This canon reads, "In view of the common good, ecclesiastical authority can direct the exercise of rights which are proper to the Christian faithful." Using this principle, bishops are determining that the common good (the protection of the faithful) is best safeguarded by directing that guilty priests who have not or cannot be penalized be directed not to exercise their priestly right to celebrate the sacraments or function publicly. Technically, it is not the imposition of a penalty but a justifiable limitation of a priest's rights. Of course, if such a"direction" of the exercise of rights is unjust, the priest still retains the right to take recourse against the decision to the CDF.

This could be helpful to the imposition of penalties on priests who have been removed from ministry on the basis of older allegations, especially if the bishop hasn't done anything about it. Once the Solemnity of Christ the King has passed, the bishop won't be able to impose penalties against these priests.

19. Concerning an accused priest afraid of being laicized who is 76 and will be ordained 50 years in February, there is a provision in the Dallas norms stating that because of age, one should not be defrocked. Does that mean he can't be?

Norm 8B of the Dallas Norms merely states: "If penalty of dismissal from the clerical state has not been applied (e.g., for reasons of advanced age or infirmity), the offender ought to live a life of prayer and penance." This does not confer on an elderly or infirm priest a right not to be dismissed from the clerical sate. It merely states that these may be reasons why a bishop may not seek laicization.

20. This is the first time I hear of the "monitoring". Is this happening in more than one diocese? Does this mean you can function in full ministry now? How often do you see this 'monitor'? Can he just drop in on a surprise visit?

First, there is no reason to simply "cave in" to monitoring, especially if there has been no canonical action taken against you. If you are not under a penalty, impediment or irregularity -- which has been formally declared in a canonical action of some sort, you can challenge the bishop's attempts to monitor you as a violation of your right to privacy under canon 220 ("No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.") A canon lawyer should be more than happy to help anyone interested in preparing a letter to his bishop to begin such a challenge. Please see the last comment of this question below. If you need a canon lawyer to do this, please contact us or the Canon Law Society of America, Father Art Espelage at 202-269-3491 (coordinator@clsa.org).

As for the procedures, many dioceses and religious orders utilize monitoring. Monitoring can be handled by a priest, or official of the Archdiocese, or a professional investigator of some sort. Typically the visits are weekly and yes, they are unannounced visits. The reason for this is to insure that your conduct is appropriate at any given moment, however, it also has value for the one being monitored since there is a quantifiable record against any suspicions of restrictions violation.

All that being said, monitoring should be reserved to those that are in most need of it because of grievous continued inappropriate behavior. These priests are usually very accepting of the restrictions that are placed on them having full knowledge of their personal need for supervision. Unfortunately, there is a gross abuse of the monitoring program by dioceses and religious orders. They are now implementing monitoring for just about any priest that has been accused even if nothing has been proven, or the behavior was so long ago the priest has proven himself over many years without ever re-offending.

We are aware of a monitoring case in which a priest who had never been formally placed under any sort of canonical penalty was subjected to a system of monitoring. The priest appealed the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and the CDF responded that the bishop's actions were inappropriate since no formal process had ever been undertaken in this priest's case and such monitoring constituted a violation of the right to privacy expressed in canon 220. Again, a priest could address this matter by getting a canonist willing to present a petition to the Archbishop asking that his decision to initiate this monitoring be revoked.

21. Is it true that preliminary "investigations" upon which the CDF seems to be acting so decisively are conducted unilaterally by diocesan officials who declare accusations "credible or substantiated" soley by virtue of agreed-upon financial settlements with no input from the accused? I, for one, have never been given an opportunity to defend myself or even to respond to accusations against me. In some cases accused priests have never before heard their accuser(s') names and have no frame of reference whatsoever for circumstances that are decades old and described only vaguely, but settled quickly because of insurance coverage.

Your concern about penal dismissales without defense is alarming, and the existence of just and viable alternatives make it especially so. It seems that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has turned to penal dissmissals from the clerical state as a routine solution to the cases being sent to them from American dioceses after preliminary diocesan investigations. However, the CDF considers dissmisal only when the bishop has expressly asked that the cleric be dismissed. The premilinary investigation is the background information the bishop uses to justify his request for removal. The CDF seems to be taking this drastic and terminal action based solely on the information provided by the bishop in the preliminary investigation. The procedural injustice of the practice of dismissing a cleric without his defense being considered is obvious.

Furthermore, although it is commonly held that decrees of dismissal are not subject to appeal or review, the cleric always has recourse to Rome when involuntary laicization has been forced upon him. The CDF in most cases will suspend the decreee for further review. A canonist should assit the cleric with this procedure. We urge any and all possible interventions to the CDF for clerics facing possible dismissal.

22. I have a priest friend who is looking for some counseling help, but he is scared to death to go to the bishop or any other brother priest, especially any one associated with the diocese. He, and I agree, is afraid that the minute you let the bishop or diocese in, he'll/they'll, remove the priest and his name will be disseminated all over the media and elsewhere. Furthermore, treatment centers are just as bad since they report to the bishop and are paid for by thediocese and I've heard some real sad stories about these places. Do you have any advice on him seeking counsel? Are there any good priest psychologists that can be trusted and are loyal to the teachings of the Church and the Holy Father?

There are very few priest psychologists/psychiatrists available. Many qualified Catholic mental health professionals help priests in this country. To find a Catholic therapist in your area who share your convictions in integrating the truths of the Catholic faith into their practice we highly recommend visiting www.catholictherapists.com.

Residential treatment is rarely indicated unless a priest is suicidal or severely incapacitated. We have priests go to psychologists from other parts of the country, take hospitality near a counselor's center and participate in intensive 4 day per week outpatient psychotherapy. Also many priests are treated on thephone from different parts of the country and this has been very succesful. The most common conflicts in priests are those of loneliness, low male confidence, anxiety and mistrust. I'd recommend priests read the article our advisor Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons wrote in The Priest on resolving loneliness in priestly life which can be found at www.maritalhealing.com/ResolvingLoneliness.pdf.

23. I have two questions regarding psychological support from treament centers that serve priests. First, isn't it a conflict of interest for a treatment center to do an assesment on a potential patient? Shouldn't there be an independent assesment that recommends treatment if needed? Second, I went to a treatment center at the request of my bishop out of obedience and because he said it would show cooperation to the authorities in order to avoid further litigation even though I am 100% innocent and a victim of a false allegation. And, the report that cameback from the center was outrageous! It said I had a preponderance to alcoholism and that could lead to abusive behavior. I have also talked to other priests that have had similar experiences at treatment centers where they were sent for evluations. Independently, I sought the opinion of three other psychologist, one who is the psychologist for the diocese and they all gave me a clean bill of health. When I went back to them and showed them the report form the treatment center, they flatly disagreed with it. They had no prior knowledge of my evaluation at the center.

There does seem to be a conflict of interest in treatment centers offering assesments and then recommending treatment, which they will perform. Second, treatment, whether at a center or with an individual psychologist can be extremely beneficial for a priest that is suffering from a disorder and is looking for help. We have many priests that have attended treatment centers and have had very positive results and are very happy with the service and care they received. However, in some cases when a priest is under a false allegation and is told by his bishop to go for treatment to a center, the center's evalutation and final reports often suggest a "preponderance" or "exhibits behavior common" to some disorder or multiple disorders. This is not the case when priests see individual psychologists where they can get a second or third opinion. The most reasonable practice is for the priest or bishop to recommend more than one evaluation from separate unassociated mental health professionals that will not administer treatment, then make a decision on whether further evaluation or even treatment is needed.

Finally, remember that according to Church teaching as laid out in the Code of Canon Law (220), a priest can reject psychological testing and the bishop is obliged not to hold that against him. In addition, when you go for evaluation, it is your right to choose who will or will not see the report they issue. This is important, you can review the report first and then decide whether you want it dissimenated or not. One of our advisors, Fr. Gregory Ingels, J.C.D., gave a talk to the Canadian Canon Law Society in 1999 that was later published in Studia Canonica addressing the issue of a priest's right not to be compelled to undergo a psychological assessment or forced therapy or treatment. 



An excerpt from this document is below:

Eventually, the bishop issued an ultimatum and ordered the pastor under obedience to submit to a psychological assessment at a well known facility which the bishop specifically named. The pastor considered this directive an undue intrusion on his right to privacy as expressed in canon 220, and so he initiated the process for recourse by asking that the bishop reconsider his decision. When the bishop refused and again directed the pastor to undergo the psychological assessment, the pastor then placed a petition for hierarchic recourse before the Congregation for the Clergy. The response issued by the Congregation for the Clergy on October 8, 1998, sustained the recourse placed by the Pastor. In part, the decision stated, "It is the consistent teaching of the Magisterium that investigation of the intimate psychological and moral status of the interior life of any member of the Christian faithful can not be carried on except with the consent of the one to undergo such evaluation, as is clearly written about in the instruction of the Secretariat of State in their August 6, 1976 letter to Pontifical Representatives. Therefore this Congregation concludes that Your Excellency can not, in this case, under pain of obedience, oblige your priest...to undergo psychological evaluation."

24. How does one find out who is on a diocesan review board? And why aren't those names out there in public?

The USCCB Essential Norms, 4 and 5, address the role and responsibility of the Review Board.  Norm 4 speaks of this group as a “confidential consultative body to the bishop,” and Norm 5 addresses who should serve as members of this board.  There is no requirement in either the Essential Norms or in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People for the bishop to make the names of this “confidential” body public.  Hence, there is no specific obligation on the bishop’s part to make the names of the board members public; however, there is also no restriction against making the names public, and many bishops have chosen to do so.

There have been unfortunate instances in which individual members of a diocesan review board have failed to fulfill properly the responsibilities entrusted to them, and this has resulted in the bishop being provided with faulty and even prejudiced consultation.  For this reason alone, it would seem that an accused priest should be informed of the identify of board’s membership or at least have the right of requesting from the bishop the identity of the members of the board in order to assure that that incidents of this nature would not affect the impartiality of any advice or consultation the board would provide the bishop and also to protect the rights of an accused priest.  If a conflict of interest or proven bias were to exist on the part of a board member, an accused priest could certainly have the right to address this issue in his defense.

25. Are anonymous accusations accepted in all dioceses? Does an accused priest have the right to face his accuser?

Anonymous allegations create a significant problem in the area of providing for the right of defense of the accused.  Although it is not explicitly stated in the Essential Norms or in the Code of Canon Law that an accused individual has the right to face his accuser, it can be significantly argued that if a person accused of such a serious offense is not afforded the opportunity of knowing the identity of his accuser, his ability to respond to the charges or to defend himself can be greatly hampered.

The Norms concerning the more grave delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which govern the procedures followed in such cases before this Congregation appear to imply that, with one exception, an accused does have the right to know the identity of his accuser.  The single exception involves offenses regarding the Sacrament of Penance and includes (1) the alleged absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue; (2) the alleged solicitation to a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue in the act, on the occasion, or under the pretext of confession; (3) the direct and indirect violation of the sacramental seal; and (4) the recording by any technical instrument and the broadcast/transmission by means of instruments of social communication of that which is said in sacramental confession by the confessor or the penitent.  In the case of these offenses, Article 20 of the CDF’s Norms provides:

          §1.  In cases concerning the delicts mentioned in art. 3 [against the sanctity of the sacrament of Penance], the Tribunal cannot indicate the name of the accuser to either the accused or his Patron unless the accuser has expressly consented.

          §2.  The same Tribunal must consider the particular importance of the question concerning the credibility of the accuser.

          §3.  Nevertheless, it is to be observed that any danger of violating the sacramental seal must be completely avoided.

Cleary the issue of the credibility of an anonymous accuser must be considered together with the obligation of providing for the right of defense of the accused priest or deacon.

Since the matter of anonymous accusations, with this one exception, is not directly addressed in the Code of Canon Law or in the USCCB Essential Norms, a bishop is free to determine whether anonymous complaints will be investigated and the level of credibility that will be afforded such allegations.  The policies of dioceses vary in this regard; but any diocese that elects to investigate anonymous allegations will have the added burden of dealing with the question of the accuser’s credibility and of assuring that the accused priest’s or deacon’s right of defense is adequately provided for.

It is also important to note that effective from the Solemnity of Christ the King on November 21, 2004, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has indicated that it will no longer accept cases in which prescription (the canonical term for “statute of limitations”) has lapsed if such an allegation was made known to the bishop prior to April 30, 2001, which is the date on which the CDF’s Norms came into effect.  Hence, older anonymous allegations which were brought to a bishop’s or diocese’s attention prior to that date, if they involve an individual whose age is currently ten years beyond majority (i.e., 28 years of age), cannot be prosecuted in the ecclesiastical forum; as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will no longer dispense from prescription in such cases.

26.  Is the process that is in place for any diocese or archdiocese different at all when the priest is not a parish priest but a member of an order such as the Jesuits? I am not totally clear on the relationship between these orders and the archdiocese and who has authority overwhat.

The USCCB Essential Norms address offenses only involving diocesan clergy and are not directly applicable in the case of an accused priest who is the member of a religious institute or society of apostolic life.  The responsibility for addressing allegations made against an “order priest,” therefore, falls to his Superior or Provincial – depending on the nature and structure of the individual institute or society.  This is addressed in the very first footnote of the Essential Norms which states, “In applying these Norms to religious priests and deacons, the term ‘religious ordinary’ shall be substituted for the term ‘bishop/eparch’ mutatis mutandis.”  The Conference of Major Superiors of Men addressed this matter at their annual Conference in Philadelphia in August of 2002 and issued a statement addressing this matter.

In responding to allegations of this nature involving an order priest, the “religious ordinary” is obligated to comply with the Norms concerning the more grave delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and follow the procedures which that Congregation has outlined in its norms.  If an order priest has had an assignment in a diocese and been answerable to the diocesan bishop by reason of this assignment, the bishop may elect to remove him from his assignment and even insist if the matter is sufficiently grave that he no longer exercise ministry or even reside in the diocese.  This is a right that a diocesan bishop has with regard to order priests in his diocese by reason of canons 679 and 682, §2. Cf. http://www.opusbono.org/canonlaw/cmsmnorms.html.

27. I just read a horrendous article discussing a meeting held by SNAP and Bishop Vigneron of Oakland, California regarding accusations against a priest. This article brings up several questions. Why is this case seemingly being investigated in the media? Why does the bishop allow this? Why does SNAP think that parishioners who support the priest have no right to their opinions? (SNAP certainly seems to think that they have a right to their opinions.) If charges against the priest have been made public, then why should the priest not have a public forum in which to present his defense? Again we see how the poor handling of all these matters by the bishops has caused all this extreme behavior. Again we must ask what about the rights of the priest in these matters. Vigneron claims to be faithful to the Magisterium but disregard canon law and principles of moral theology.

The case is in the media because the Bishops' chose to use the media, which is clearly unfair. SNAP thinks that no one should publicly support an accused priest because it causes other (alleged) victims from coming forward, which is preposterous . And, most priests do not want there names in public even for their own defense, because they are afraid it will just stir up more accusations in this media frenzy and they are terrified of what the bishop might do next even though they are already suspended.

28. I am in agony! I was removed from ministry and like my brother priests, I was never told the accusation, never had an opportunity to speak to my bishop, a kangaroo court called a review board meeting accused me of things I never did, then I was told that my bishop wrote to Rome asking what to do and I was told to wait, "it would all work out fine". The next thing I know, I'm being laicized! Now I have a canon lawyer (I was never told to get one) because I just "trusted" my bishop and was obedient and waited as his vicar of clergy told me that he wanted me to do. Please tell me, is it possible or advisable to write the CDF on my own, and will they even open the letter and read it?

The CDF will open your letter, and they will read it, and they will put it with your case file for consideration. Your problem is not unique. Many cases are sent to Rome from the diocese without any response from the priest being accused, so the CDF assumes that you and the bishop have worked it all out and that you are aware of the process that's taking place. We strongly suggest that every priest that has a case in Rome writes the CDF. Furthermore, we also advise that you don't wait for the bishop to send something to Rome, but rather you write to Rome immediately explaining your situation. You should receive a "protocol number", which simply means that there is a formal case in Rome regarding your situation. Make sure you follow up with phone calls and faxes. If you are in Rome, call and go meet someone from the CDF. The congregation has a secretary who is His Excellency Mgr. Angelo Amato, S.D.B., an under-secretary, P. Joseph Augustine Di Noia, O.P., and a Promotor of Justice Mgr. Charles Scicluna. Here is how to contact them:

Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede
Piazza del S. Uffizio, 11
00120 Cittá del Vaticano
Vatican City
Phone: +39 0669883296
Fax: +39 0669884532

29. Is the Church offering a safe residential support effort to remove their priest from the community before they offend again?

In a case where a priest needs support in order not to re-offend, the Church has adopted the policy of removing them and leaving the priest to his own resources, which are greatly limited if any at all. This of course causes an enormous risk to the well-being of the priest who is trying to overcome his weakness because he is suddenly thrust in to a deep personal crisis. Abuse happens most often during personal crisis when an abuser is most vulnerable. Not to mention the obvious one who could be abused. There are places for priests who need support and a place to live separated from the situations that cause their temptation and fall. However, in the current environment in the Church very few bishops will offer this option to them, preferring rather to laicize them and thus be done with the “liability” of having to take care of the priests.

30. Can these "imposed" laicizations be appealed? I regret that I've forgotten most of that Canon Law from seminary during the last century. The Church is meant to give us hope. I refuse to give that up. Only our Church has that wonderful Italian blessing called the dispensation. Even commandments can be understood humanly and humanely.

There have been some dismissals from the clerical state that were approved "in forma specifica" by John Paul II. In such cases there can be no appeal. At the same time, the CDF does have the authority (granted in a dispensation from its own norms which are below) also to dismiss penally a priest from the clerical state. Such a dismissal can be appealed. However, the Holy See also has a process for "rehabilitation" of a dismissed or laicized priest. Provided that this process has not been forbidden in a specific case, any laicized or dismissed priest can seek "rehabilitation" if he finds a benevolent bishop who will support him.While most bishops are too "gun shy" at the moment to take on a priest who has been accused of sexual misconduct, there are some bishops out there willing to give dismissed or laicized priests a chance to return to ministry. Here are the pertinent articles and dispensations from the CDF Norms: (To view the entire document click: READMISSION TO SACRED MINISTRY.

Art. 17

The more grave delicts reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may only be tried in a judicial process.

Faculty to dispense:

The faculty is granted to the CDF to dispense from art. 17 in those grave and clear cases which, according to the Particular Congress of the CDF:

a) may be referred directly to the Holy Father for an ex officio dismissal from the clerical state, or

b) may be treated under the summary process of can. 1720 by the Ordinary who, in case he is of the opinion that the accused should be dismissed from the clerical state, will ask the CDF to impose dismissal by decree. [Approved by the Supreme Pontiff on February 7, 2003]


Special Procedure in case of recourse against administrative acts of the CDF concerning delicta graviora cases:

In delicta graviora cases, the request for revocation of administrative acts of the CDF and all other recourse against the said acts made in accordance to art. 135 of the Regolomento Generale della Curia Romana, shall be referred to the FeriaIV [of the CDF] which will decide on the merits and on questions of lawfulness.  Any other recourse under art. 123 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus is excluded. [Approved by the Supreme Pontiff on February 14, 2003]

31. I have a priest friend who was removed in 1998 from ministry after being accused of misconduct with a minor. After six months in treatment center, he was given a clean bill of health and reassigned to "limited" ministry (chaplain to a convent and writing). When the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2002, he was removed from ministry. Since then he has been living on his own in an apartment and working part time. Recently, he was offered a settlement package (a sum of money now and pension sharing at 65) if he would petition for laicization. He was told if he did not petition for laicization, he would be laicized by the ordinary. His laicization was granted. At the meetings to discuss the settlement and laicization, he was never told that the bishop was considering publishing his name and the reason for his laicization in the press. He claims the reason is "transparency." My priest friend feels that any progress he has made to heal and move on with his life will be lost. He has already moved out of his apartment and will probably lose his part-time job. My question is: can the bishop publish his name? Isn't laicization a private act? Is there anything he can do to prevent this?

This is a very difficult situation. The short and direct answer is, no, laicization is not a private act.  The fact that a priest has voluntarily sought laicization or been dismissed from the clerical state is a public act in the Church. While laicizations are generally not communicated to the faithful, the bishop does have a right to communicate the fact to the faithful for the common good of the Church. However, his decision to communicate this fact and the detrimental effects that it is having on your priest friend's life are relevant, especially if he loses his source of income because of the bishop’s actions.

The relevant canon is Canon 128

“Whoever illegitimately inflicts damage upon someone by a juridic act or by any other act placed with malice or negligence is obliged to repair the damage inflicted.”

While it can probably be argued that the bishop’s decision to publish the fact of his laicization was not necessarily a juridic act per se, it certainly was an “other act placed" which has caused damage. The most difficult aspect of this would be to provide “malice or negligence” – in Latin “dolo vel culpa.” While “malice or negligence” is the usually accepted translation of these terms, “dolo” is also translated “deliberately” and “culpa” translated "culpably". Hence, it can be argued that the damage resulting from any act “deliberately and culpably placed” must be repaired by the one who has placed the act.

If, in fact, he loses his source of income and cannot find a new position because of the bishop’s actions, then he could initiate a canonical action based on the bishop’s act seeking a repair of the damages that have been done. It would not be an easy case to win, but it is a possible action.

Another possibility would be to place a suit against the bishop before the Rota on the basis of Canon 220:

“No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.” 

Basically, the “transparency” rationale is an attempt on the part of the bishop to protect his own privacy and that of the Church; but the argument again boils down to the issue of whether he acted “illegitimately.”  It can be argued that whatever incident occurred in the 1970s was successfully dealt with therapeutically as your priest friend's medical records will show, and that revealing all of this at the present time for reasons of “transparency” may well be defamation based on detraction (the telling of the truth about someone which results in harming his reputation and doing damage).

Again, this would be a very difficult and time consuming case to deal with, especially since it would have to be tried in Rome before the Rota; and arguing the illegitimacy and culpability of the bishop’s actions will be the most difficult points to make.

32. My accuser was over the age of 16 when the alleged incident took place in 1976. Based on canon 1395.2, I don’t think I can be laicized and permanently removed from the priesthood, however my bishop has “offered” me a sum of money and continued benefits for one year if I request laicization. If I don’t, he says he’ll have me laicized anyways and I’ll get nothing. Can you please clarify canonically what is happening here and elsewhere? Can I go to another country for ministry?

In 1976, canon 2359, §2, of the 1917 Code of Canon Law noted that the penalty of “deposition” or dismissal from the clerical state could be imposed in cases involving an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue only if the delict involved a minor under the age of sixteen years.  Hence, on the basis of the principle expressed in canon 1313, §1, of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which states that “if a law is changed after a delict has been committed, the law more favorable to the accused is to be applied,” no penalty can be imposed in this case.

At the present time, “a delict against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen years” is reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  This is stated in Art. 4, §1, of the CDF Norms that were promulgated on April 30, 2001.  This does not apply to an older offense that would have occurred in 1976 with a minor over the age of sixteen.  In such cases the Congregation has directed that no penalty be imposed and that the matter be handled administratively.

Norm 8 of the USCCB Essential Norms provides that

When even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accordance with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants.

In the case of the single1976 offense involving a minor over the age of sixteen, a penal dismissal from the clerical state is not an option based on the principles of law explained above.  However, bishops are making use of Norm 8 to justify administrative decisions not to re-assign a priest to ministry.  While a bishop can “invite” a priest to seek laicization – although in the present case, perhaps the term “bribe” is a more accurate description, it is unlikely in a case of this nature that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would agree to an involuntary laicization.  However, as has been mentioned many times throughout these FAQ, it is extremely important for the priest to seek competent canonical advice and to act proactively by presenting a defense on his own initiative to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in order to protect his right to participate in the investigation and consideration of his case.

It should also be noted that not all bishops are taking the approach of insisting on laicization or dismissal in the case of a single thirty year old offense which did not involve a minor under the age of sixteen.  If it can be ascertained through therapeutic or other means that the priest is not a threat to the safety of the Christian faithful, some bishops can and have re-assigned priests to non-public forms of ministry.

A priest is always free to seek ministry in another diocese or in another country, and a number of bishops will give serious consideration to such requests.  In such cases, however, the priest’s candor with the bishop whom is he is approaching in this other diocese is most important since Norm 12 of the Essential Norms does require that 

Before such a diocesan/eparchial priest or deacon can be transferred for residence to another diocese/eparchy, his diocesan/eparchial bishop shall forward, in a confidential manner, to the bishop of the proposed place of residence any and all information concerning any act of sexual abuse of a minor and any other information indicating that he has been or may be a danger to children or young people.

A significantly important argument that a priest can make when approaching a benevolent bishop in another diocese, especially if a single offense has occurred decades ago, is the statement that Pope John Paul II offered to the American Cardinals in 2002 when addressing them concerning the policies that the bishops were drafting at the time in anticipation of the Dallas meeting of the USCCB.  While commending the work of the American bishops, the Holy Father also stated:

At the same time, even while recognizing how indispensable these criteria are, we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person’s soul and can work extraordinary change.

33. My Father died suddenly in my arm's in the ICU room and I promised him I would take care of mother who is 82 and has had three heart attacks and two strokes. Can the bishop take away my faculties if I take a leave to care for my dying mother?

Most every diocese has a policy which provides for a sabbatical or leave of absence for medical or personal reasons. You should speak to the bishop or the Vicar for Clergy of your diocese and request permission to take a leave or sabbatical for these family reasons. It would be surprising for a bishop to remove a priest's faculties simply due to the fact that he is caring for his aged and infirmed mother. However, if a priest abandoned his assignment and had not sought the bishop's permission to provide care for his mother in these circumstances, the bishop could possibly impose a penalty for such actions which would include the removal of faculties.

34. Our archdiocese is having some of our removed priests go through continued therapy even after they have completed previous programs successfully and have never had another issue. Some of these continued therapy programs are group sessions with convicted sex offenders, which the archdiocese is forcing them to participate. Not only are the men not convicted, but the others in the group are prison experienced offenders unrelated to the Catholic church. These priests are very stressed about having to continue this therapy.

Many dioceses keep their accused priests in therapy to protect themselves legally. If a priest were to commit a crime, the diocese would not be charged for negligence because they kept them out of ministry and in therapy. The priest and the therapist would be blamed for the crime, not the diocese. Forcing non-convicted priests to participate in therapy with convicted offenders creates a situation where innocent men are treated as convicted criminals. This is a violation of their right to be innocent until proven guilty. It also sends a message to the public that even though these men have not been convicted, the church still views them as criminals. If a diocese wants these men to be in therapy, it should be individual therapy, not group. There should also be a limit to the length of therapy which is determined by the priest and therapist, not the diocese. In addition, canonically priests have the right to choose their own therapists. They cannot be forced to go to any specific therapist by their diocese. The problem here is that diocese, lawyers and insurance companies are calling the shots. They are not experts in mental health, so there is no real foundation for their decisions other than fear of lawsuits.

35. I am a priest who has been serving in the United States for the last 16 years. After working 10 years in a diocese, I had applied for incardination three years ago.  I received the required letter of excardination from my diocese in India, and the local diocesan bishop here had acknowledged my request positively. I continued serving in the diocese and was appointed as the temporary Administrator to two different parishes, then as Administrator to two linked parishes for three years. Since I had not received any further notification during these last three years and was not receiving any of the benefits that are afforded incardinated priests, I recently inquired about my incardination and I was told that I will not be incardinated. Does canon 268 apply in this case since neither bishop had expressed opposition within four months of receiving the letter, and am I in fact incardinated in the diocese?

In view of the fact that you have been residing legitimately and serving in the diocese for the past ten years, the five year period called for in canon 268, §1, had clearly been completed.  Since you did receive a letter of excardination from your bishop a quo in India and the bishop of the diocese ad quem in the United States had responded “positively” and had expressed no opposition to your request for incardination within the four month period called for by this canon, you were in fact incardinated in the diocese by this principle of law at the conclusion of the four month period.  This canon does not require that the five year period of legitimate residence (commoratio) begin only at the time that the priest makes the request to be incardinated.  Rather, this five year period begins at the time that the priest first established a legitimate residence in the diocese.Cf. In this specific case, you resided legitimately in the diocese for at least ten years prior to your making a request for incardination; and the bishop of the diocese did not express opposition within the four month period provided for by this canon. Hence, in view of these circumstances and the application of this canon, the diocesan bishop cannot oppose your incardination at the present time and must provide for the rights that you currently enjoy by reason of your incardination in the diocese.

In the event that the bishop refuses to recognize your incardination:

Basically, it will be imperative that you obtain the services of a qualified canon lawyer and present a formal petition to the bishop requesting that your incardination be recognized. If the bishop refuses to do this, then it will be necessary to take hierarchical recourse to the Congregation for the Clergy. In order for such a recourse to be successful, you will have to have copies of all of the relevant correspondence -- specifically, your letter of excardination, your letter requesting incardination, and any indication that you may have received -- hopefully in writing -- of the bishop's initial "positive response" to your request.

36. Recently I requested a meeting with our new archbishop. I have an accusation against me that I have vehemently denied even in the press, however the archbishop responded to me that on advice of his canon lawyers, and in order to protect my rights, he should not meet with me or speak to me directly.

It is unusual that a bishop's canonists would urge him not to speak with his priest in order to "protect" the priest's "rights". In view of the fact that under canon law it is the bishop's responsibility to investigate allegations of misconduct, either personally or through an investigator, and in view of the fact that canon 384 specifically states that "with special solicitude, a diocesan bishop is to attend to presbyters and... protect their rights and take care that they correctly fulfill the obligations proper to their state," it is troubling that a bishop would be advised not to speak with his priests. The advice that your archbishop is receiving seems to be much more concerned with issues of civil law in that as long as the archbishop can claim "ignorance" about anything related to an accused priest, he protects himself and the archdiocese from any civil lawsuits. However, such an action certainly appears to be an abandonment of his responsibilities as a diocesan bishop and pastor to his priests.

Cf. “The Christian Faithful” by Robert J. Kaslyn, S.J., in New Commentary of the Code of Canon Law, pp. 333-334.

37. I wrote a letter to the Holy Father requesting laicization. I received notice that the letter and request had been accepted. The chancery called me several times to sign the rescript, which I do not believe I have done to this day. I am wondering if I am officially laicized or not... if signing the rescript is a necessary component to make the laicization effective or if simply the writing of the letter was sufficient to laicize me.

Your laicization did become effective on the date that the decree was issued. The purpose in seeking the signature of the priest is simply to maintain a record that he has been informed of the fact that the dispensation was granted.

38. I attended therapy sessions with a counselor recommended by the archdiocese. For many months we engaged in a therapeutic relationship until she requested at one session that I sign a 'HIPPA form.' Unless I signed the form, she said I could no longer receive therapy from her. Until this point, I had never seen this form and asked that I take a copy with me to 'think it over.' She told me that the form was not to leave her office. The form had a space to 'fill in' a person and/or entity to whom information could be revealed. She indicated that this would be in emergency types of situations. When I told her that I would like to insert my parents' names there, she told me that I must write, 'the archbishop or his appointed delegate.' She said that because the archdiocese was paying for my insurance, I had to put this in the space provided. For 50 minutes, I hesitantly and dubiously considered the form. There was space on the back to limit the type of information that could be revealed.  I tried to limit it as much as possible. At the end of the session, because I wanted at that time to continue therapy with her and felt that there was no other choice, I did indeed write 'the archbishop or his appointed delegate'.

You must consult a civil lawyer as to whether or not you were unduly pressured into signing the HIPPA form, and it sounds like you feel you were. If, in fact, the civil lawyer feels that you were unduly pressured into signing this form, then perhaps there would be a way for the civil lawyer to seek reparation for the damages that you have suffered as a result of this compelled action. Under canon law, a priest cannot be compelled to reveal information arising from his medical or therapeutic treatment, even to his bishop or so-called "appointed delegate". Sadly, this is a back-handed tactic often used by some bishops or chancery officials to get priests to sign off on psychological information that they can't directly ask the priest to give canonically. In addition, just because a third party is paying for your insurance, does not give them a legal right to violate your right to privacy, thus your therapist was completely out of line.

39. I am now the pastor of a parish where I was the associate when my predecessor fired a woman who worked for the parish. She ended up suing the diocese and our parish after my predecessor left and I was made pastor. The diocese has billed the parish for the legal fees in defense of this case. Canonically can the diocese do this to us?

Canonically, It is important to understand that a parish is considered a "juridic person" under canon law. In other words, it is somewhat similar to corporate status under civil law which distinguishes the parish from the diocese. As a juridic person, a parish is responsible for its own expenses and liabilities. The bishop can enforce this distinction even if under the state's civil law the parish would be part of a diocesan civil corporation. So, in a word, yes. The diocese can require the parish to be responsible for its legal expenses stemming from the pastor firing of a person who worked for the parish. Issues of this nature are normally addressed in diocesan policy; but even if they are not, canon law would support the position that the parish is responsible for the legal expenses that were incurred by reason of the pastor's terminating this woman. Furthermore, the new pastor does inherit the financial obligations that existed in the parish when he was appointed.

40 Is it your perception that the charter and norms of the U.S. bishops do not adequately protect priests against false accusations?

The Essential Norms were originally promulgated in 2002 and were later revised in 2006. The biggest problems with the Norms are not the law itself but the failure of bishops, and of canonists appointed to serve on tribunals, to abide by the principles not only of the Essential Norms but also the general law contained in the Code of Canon Law. Unfortunately, canonists have complained about many trials in which the rights of the accused priest are completely ignored. These have included the failure to admit exculpatory proofs as evidence in the trial. These tribunals have also refused to provide an accused priest's advocate with a copy of the proofs so that he can prepared an adequate defense brief despite the fact that the Code specifically provides that an advocate is to be provided with a copy. The attitude that seems to exists is that any accused priest has to be kept out of sight and away from ministry, which appears to be more important than reaching a just resolution of his case. Many canonists have compared this situation with the Inquisition in which "kangaroo ecclesiastical courts" simply found anyone and everyone guilty on the basis of an accusation.  What needs to be done is to utilize properly trained and impartial canonists to serve on these tribunals instead of individuals who seem to be out to further their own position by helping bishops remove any and all accused priests from ministry.

41 The Archbishop has given the personnel files of all of us priests to "a private law firm" without the knowledge or consent of any of us priests.  None of us have yet to be accused of any crime, nor were the files subpoenaed.  We were told by the former Vicar General that we do not have the right to review our own files or submit rebuttals to any false accusations that may be contained in our files. Can a priest sue his bishop for defamation of character, slander, etc? 


Among the obligations of a diocesan bishop is the responsibility to protect the rights of his priests, which is specifically noted in canon 384 of the Code of Canon Law.  This obligation must also be respected by a Vicar General whose responsibility it is to assist the diocesan bishop in the proper governance of the diocese.  Among the rights enjoyed by all of the Christian faithful is that of a good reputation.  Canon 220 specifically states, “No one is permitted to harm illegitimately the good reputation which a person possesses nor to injure the right of any person to protect his or her own privacy.”  Canon 128 addresses the responsibility of repairing illegitimate damage to a person’s good reputation.  This canon states, “Whoever illegitimately inflicts damage upon someone by a juridical act or by any other act placed with malice or negligence is obliged to repair the damage inflicted.”  The placing of a false or unproven allegations against a priest in his personnel file without having afforded him the opportunity to submit a response or rebuttal could certainly be interpreted as such an act that has been placed “with malice or negligence.”



As regards the right of a priest to review his personnel files, canon law does provide for what is commonly referred to as a “secret archive” for the maintenance of documents “which pertain to the spiritual and temporal affairs of the diocese” which must be “properly filed and diligently secured” (canon 486, §2).  While access to these files is limited and requires the permission of the bishop or, in the absence of the bishop, the moderator of the curia and the chancellor (cf. canon 487, §1), canon 487, §2, does note a specific exception stating that  “Interested parties have the right to obtain personally or through a proxy an authentic written copy or photocopy of documents which by their nature are public and which pertain to their personal status.”  In view of accepted principles in canon law, a diocese cannot establish a policy, which ignores these principles of universal law.



If an individual’s personal reputation has been damaged, canon law does provide means by which a person can seek the repair of such illegitimate damages.  Depending on the nature of the actions that are responsible for such damage, the procedures to be followed would involve either an administrative or judicial process.  Obviously, a priest who is concerned that his rights have not been properly protected or provided for should seek the services of a competent canonical advisor or advocate in order to address this matter in an appropriate manner and implement an appropriate process.



The question of a priest suing his bishop in the civil forum for defamation of character or slander, however, is a very sensitive issue that could result in the imposition of penalties on the priest.  The 1917 Code of Canon Law specifically provided that persons who take recourse to the civil authorities to impede the exercise of ecclesiastical jurisdiction incur an excommunication imposed by the law itself that is reserved to the Holy See (cf. 1917 Code of Canon Law, canons 2333 and 2334).  While the 1983 Code of Canon Law did not incorporate the exact wording of this earlier norm of law into the present Code, this matter is addressed in canon 1735 which provides that “Those who impede the freedom of ministry, of election, or of ecclesiastical power…or who greatly intimidates…one who exercises ecclesiastical power or ministry can be punished with a just penalty.”  The threat or actual filing of a civil lawsuit by a priest could be interpreted as such an act of intimidation, which could result in the priest’s being “punished with a just penalty.”  There is clearly an expectation that the resolution of such issues raised in this question be resolved in the ecclesiastical forum.  If a bishop is ignoring the rights of his priests or has illegitimately damaged a priest’s good reputation, the procedures that are a part of the law of the Church should certainly be pursued as a means of resolving these issues rather than threatening legal action in the civil forum.




© Copyright 2002-2010 Opus Bono Sacerdotii, an IRS approved 501c3 corporation, all contributions are tax deductible in the USA.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have questions about the site.