Miranda Rights – Not in Canon Law

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In American law we have a sense of “Miranda Rights’. The police have an obligation to tell you that everything you say can and may be used against you. There is no sense of any Miranda Rights in Canon Law. If a priest or another person is called into the chancery office no one will tell you that you have the right to remain silent. That is one of your rights, but no one will tell you. In any sort of a meeting with diocesan officials in which you do not know the purpose of the meeting, keeping silent may be a good idea. It is my experience that most priests, deacons and most church employees are honest and feel the obligation to talk. So they divulge much more than they should. The bishop is seen as a brother in ministry that is trying to look out for our best interests. They are not. They are looking out for the best interest of the diocese and lay people.

I have found that many diocesan officials do not divulge exactly what they are looking into or for from the person. They will not tell the entire story of what they have heard so far and that will leave and priest in the dark as to what is being asked or expected of him. Many of the Ministerial Standard Boards are not given all the information either so they are basing their conclusions on selected information. If a priest or deacon has an allegation of sexual misconduct made against him the diocese will release his name to the parish staff, parish and thus to the media in an effort to be transparent. In America the names of accused clerics are released before the police or civil authorities have had a chance to complete their investigation.

In most cases the diocese will not tell the cleric they have a right to canonical counsel or civil counsel before they start asking questions or begin their “preliminary” investigation. Canon law allows the cleric the right to choose his own canonical advocate and have the person confirmed by the diocese. Canon law does not allow the diocese to name an advocate without the cleric’s permission. The advocate does need to be in good standing within their own diocese and within the church. The cleric who is called in to meet with the diocese for an unknown reason should first ask the reason. If none is forthcoming or the matter concerns serious canonical difficulties should take either a canon lawyer if one is available or at least a good priest friend who could ask questions and provide a more neutral ear to hear what is being said.

Under the new Code published by Pope Francis on Jan. 6, 2021, Canon 1321 specifically states: “Any person is considered innocent until the contrary is proved.” Just having an allegation is not enough.

I encourage every cleric to keep a written calendar of what they did, what time they did it, and the date on which it was done. Written ink and lead can be tested to prove that the calendar was done months or even years ago and not done recently. Also, keep a phone log of who called, when, what was talked about and how long. Also in pen or pencil. These may not be relevant to the allegation but could prove that you were doing something else at the time. It could strengthen your defense.

The best advice, watch what you do or say. All of the time and everywhere.

— Fr. Michael Sullivan, JCL.

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