Why We Want Priests to Understand Their Rights, Part 3

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Submitted by: Mutual Support Working Group

This is the last installment of “Why we want priests to understand their rights,” a series of three short articles exploring three themes to help contextualize AUSCP’s efforts on priests’ rights: due process, the thwarting of that right, and the seeking of remedies when due process is denied.  Today’s article will focus how canon law protects a priest against having due process rights denied.  

In the past, the Bishops upon hearing a victim’s accusation, relied all too often on canon law and treated criminal sexual activity principally as a pastoral problem. Canon law was inadequate to deal with the abuse, and did not compel bishops to act differently.  All this helped strengthened the perception that the bishops were more concerned about the church than the innocent victim.  

Faithful and caring parents, however, knew this was wrong and unacceptable. They helped launch nationwide awareness to the abuse scandal and the church’s role.  Due to media investigations, the Bishops were forced to do what was right and just.  Those caring parents not only helped win justice for their children, but also for the church.  

Priests do not have the leverage over the bishops as parents did.  For example, they cannot bring their case to civil court because the courts have no jurisdiction over ‘ecclesiastical matters forbidden under the First Amendment of the Constitution.’ Cases filed with the Roman Rota can take years to be adjudicated and seldom is a bishop’s decision overruled by Rome.  It is a hardship journey that requires the assistance from a skilled canon lawyer as well as knowing the rights, that he, as a priest is entitled.  Priests’ awareness of their rights is significantly important.

One of the by-products of parents’ efforts for due process was the promulgation of new canons in the Code of Canon Law.  The new code makes explicit that it is now a crime not to report abuse, considers sexual abuse a crime, and explicitly punishes those who are guilty, not only priests but lay Catholics and religious brothers and sisters as well. 

The transgressions against due process for priests have equally been addressed in the updated Book VI of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  Pascite Gregem Dei, promulgated on May 23, 2021, and took effect on December 8, 2021, provided clearer rules on numerous offences, including sexual ones.  Two changes are highlighted here.  The first, affirms that the Church maintain a presumption of innocence and right to a fair hearing for priests, thus restoring due process from a former practice of removing priests from ministry due to a mere accusation or even a non-credible accusation.  

The following aspect of canon law may be helpful in understanding what these new canons provide for priests. 

Can. 36 §1. An administrative act must be understood according to the proper meaning of the words and the common manner of speaking. In a case of doubt, those which refer to litigation, pertain to threatening or inflicting penalties, restrict the rights of a person, injure the acquired rights of others, or are contrary to a law which benefits private persons are subject to a strict interpretation; all others are subject to a broad interpretation. 

Thus the more restrictive acts or penalties cannot be imposed unless the conditions of the law are present.  Deriving from this principle Canon 1321 must be interpreted in a strict manner thus avoiding harshness.

Canon 1321. § 1. Any person is considered innocent until the contrary is proved.  No one can be punished unless the commission by him or her of an external violation of a law or precept is gravely imputable by reason of malice or of culpability. (emphasis ours)

Yet we know that often this canon is ignored by Bishops.  We know that many priests are treated unjustly because of this.  And we know that the Light of Christ’s hope and justice shining in the darkness becomes dimmer itself. 

The other change benefits priests not yet judged as well as victim rights.  

Canon 1362. §1. A criminal action is extinguished by prescription after three years.  Although exceptions to this rule are allowed, the major thrust of this new canon allows a window of only three years from the beginning of a formal canonical process for the prosecution to conclude its case, before the clock on the statute of limitations starts running again. 

Clerics in lingering canonical processes can now demand a resolution to their status, and eventually make a legal claim that the case against them has expired. Alleged victims can remind the Church’s canonical prosecutors, called “promoters of justice,” that the opportunity for justice can be thwarted by a running game clock.

An important lesson in all this is that due process is a foundational principle in law and needs to be upheld for justice for all people of God to be realized.  The faithful and clerics need to be aware of their due process rights and responsibilities.  

The initiative of AUSCP in distributing due process information to clerics was our way of helping our brother priests of their canonical and civil rights when accused of misconduct, rights of which many are unaware, and rights to which all God’s people are entitled. Although bishops continue to obstruct due process, recent changes to Canon Law have strengthened child abuse protections, and made significant efforts to protect the innocent and prevent wrongful convictions.  

We pray that these new changes promising a fairer, and more compassionate and equitable system of justice for everyone will be realized.  We also pray that the Bishops will abide by the law of the Church. 

-jim musumeci IVDei

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