Church in Crisis
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TERENCE SMITH: Today’s response from the Vatican–rejecting parts of the U.S. Bishops policy on abusive priests–comes after months of upheaval and debate that has engulfed the Catholic Church in the states. To explain today’s developments and put them in context we’re joined by John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent news weekly covering the Catholic church. Welcome.
Mr. Allen, when you look at this today, do you regard it as an outright rejection of what the U.S. Bishops tried to do in Dallas several months ago?
JOHN ALLEN: No, clearly not. Actually, the letter, which was made public buildup the Vatican today signed by Cardinal Giovanni Batista Ray, who is the prefect for the Congress for Bishops, which was to Bishop Wilton Gregory as president of the Bishops Conference, was deliberately positive in its opening paragraph affirming the intent to protect children from sexual abuse and affirming the goal of making sure that priests who would sexually abuse children are removed from the ministry. I think there’s complete agreement there in terms of the aim.
The question is really one of means. And at the level of the strategies the Bishops have adopted, there clearly are differences between the Vatican and the approach taken by the American bishops at their meeting in Dallas in June. Briefly, one can express those differences under three headings: The first is the question of the definition of sexual abuse in the Dallas program. The Vatican has long been concerned this is an overly broad definition. It includes both physical and non-physical interactions.
Theoretically this could include things like off color jokes or showing a young person an R-rated movie. The second category would be due process concerns and this encompasses a wide variety of things, things like a statute of limitations; a priest’s right to mount a defense and also the confidentiality the priest should be entitled to when an allegation is made.
Finally the question of the role of the lay review boards that Dallas envisioned that the diocese would create. The Vatican has a concern as to whether they’re going to function in an advisory capacity or they’re actually going to be imposing disciplinary sanctions on priests if the latter is the case, it would state in conflict with Canon Law, which is the universal code of the Catholic Church, so at least on those three issues there are serious differences but it does not amount to a rejection of the entire program.
TERENCE SMITH: What is to happen now? There is a mixed commission that has been or is being appointed to try to hammer out some sort of agreed policy?
JOHN ALLEN: Yeah, that’s right. The Vatican proposed and Bishop Gregory swiftly accepted the so-called mixed commission four appointees from the Vatican, the four Vatican offices who have had lead responsibility for evaluating this program. And then there will be four bishops appointed by Bishop Gregory to represent the American Bishops Conference. The concept is that the two sides will meet in what presumably will be sort of marathon negotiating sessions over the next month.
Bishop Gregory indicated this morning in his press conference in Rome that he hopes the results of the work will be ready for the bishops, American bishops when they meet in Washington in November, November 11-14. By the standards of Vatican operations, this would be a remarkably swift result. It should be noted the that the generation of the commission has generated criticism from victims groups in the United States because it will be composed of eight bishops and noticeably absent from the table are laypeople and above all, victims and their representatives.
TERENCE SMITH: Is the Vatican’s approval, essentially absolutely necessary for the U.S. bishops to have a policy that they can then implement in the United States?
JOHN ALLEN: Yes, it is. For two reasons: One is that the bishops, you know, before they met in Dallas in June, had policies on sexual abuse. The problem was that they were not uniformly enforced because bishops were– they were guidelines rather than binding policies.
Bishops were free to choose to apply them or not. In Dallas, the bishops voted to request what’s called a requitsio, which is a sort of legal recognition enacting grant of authority from the Vatican to make these policies binding. Moreover, there are places where the policies in Dallas conflict with the Church’s code of canon law.
And in order for the bishops to do something that contradicts canon law, they would of course need the Vatican’s blessing to do so. So for both of these reasons, the bishops were very much hoping that the Vatican would sign off on this policy and obviously today’s decision means that the Vatican is not prepared to do so.
TERENCE SMITH: What happens in the meantime? I mean some 300 priests have already been removed, and a good number of them have appealed that removal or those penalties that have been imposed. What happens in those cases?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, that’s an excellent question. And unfortunately today’s commentary has not clarified that. You’re quite right that since Dallas was adopted or the Dallas norms were adopted in June, some 300 priests have been removed. We know anecdotally that a good number of them have appealed the removals to Rome. The removals will go to the congregation for clergy in Rome and if a priest does not get satisfaction there, he can appeal it ultimately to Apostolic Signatura, which is the supreme court of the Catholic Church. It’s not clear what standards they’re going to be applying.
I mean technically speaking, today’s decision should mean that the code of canon law continues to prevail, which means that if priests have been removed under procedures that different from canon law and they appeal, those appeals should be upheld, which would mean the vast majority of the priests would be eligible, theoretically, to be reinstated. But it is possible the Vatican may take the position to wait and see what comes out of the mixed commission.
Or, the sort of third wild card factor here is that last spring the Vatican put in place a couple of new church courts in the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, which is the chief doctrinal agency of the Vatican to deal with sex abuse cases and they promulgated some new norms for those courts but they’ve never published them. It is possible the Vatican may clues to adjudicate the cases under those norms. We don’t know what that would mean because we haven’t seen the norms. So I think on the question you’ve raised. The answer is we don’t know what will happen with the appeal.
TERENCE SMITH: We don’t know a fair amount. All right. John Allen, thank you very much.
JOHN ALLEN: It’s my pleasure.