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'Defrocking' priests: the media keep asking the wrong question

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 02, 2010

When you ask the wrong question, you're likely to get the wrong answer.

In a story that appeared in hundreds of American newspapers earlier this week, the Associated Press claimed that in 1989, "The future Pope Benedict XVI refused to remove a US priest from the ministry." That opening sentence was completely inaccurate. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger did not refuse to remove the priest in question from active ministry; that question wasn't even in his domain.

A headline that appeared on the AP story-- "Future pope refused defrocking of convicted priest"-- was only slightly better. It is true enough that, under the particular circumstances that arose in the case, Cardinal Ratzinger had refused to laicize a priest. But his refusal had absolutely nothing to do with the topic of the AP story: the future Pontiff's approach to discipline of abusive priests. The AP reporter had asked the wrong question.

Before plunging into the specifics of the case, let me pause to clear up a minor error that occurs quite routinely in secular newspaper reports. The Church may sometimes "laicize" a priest, but the term "defrock" has no meaning in canon law. For reasons best known to themselves, secular editors invariably prefer the inaccurate term. But leave that aside. For practical purposes, when reporters write about "defrocking," they mean "laicizing."

Now in the 1989 case that was cited in the AP story, the bishop of Springfield, Illinois, sought to laicize a priest who had abused children. Cardinal Ratzinger might have been perfectly happy to see that penalty enforced. But he told the bishop that a severe canonical penalty could not be imposed without allowing the priest a canonical trial.

Anyone familiar with the term "due process" should readily grasp the future Pope's point. The Church, like the state, has its own system of justice, its own canonical courts. A priest can be penalized for misconduct, but only after he has been found guilty.

But what should be done with an accused priest before his canonical trial? In the secular system of criminal law, someone who could pose a danger to society may be kept in prison pending his trial. How should the Church protect young people from a predatory priest?

Let me repeat the question, because if reporters were seriously interested in protecting children, rather than attacking the Pope, that is precisely the question they should ask: How should the Church protect young people from a predatory priest?

Ask that question, and immediately you come to a realization: The Church can suspend priests, or laicize priests, or excommunicate priests. But the Church can't jail priests. A priest who is laicized-- or "defrocked," if you prefer-- remains at large. He still might have access to children.  

What the Church can do, and should do immediately, is remove abusive priests from active ministry, so that they cannot use their clerical status to lure young men. In the 1989 Springfield case, Bishop Daniel Ryan had both the authority and the duty to pull the accused priest out of active ministry while he pursued the canonical case for laicization.

In many cases, actually, the suspension of an abusive priest might be more effective than laicization, in terms of protecting young people. A bishop cannot put a priest in jail. But he can assign a priest to work in a remote location, under close supervision. He might even tell the priest to live in isolation in a monastery-- although the priest would have the right to appeal such a directive. Once that priest is laicized, the bishop has no more control over him.

Secular newspaper reports on the sex-abuse scandal regularly begin with the assumption that laicization-- "defrocking"-- is the only appropriate response to priestly misconduct. But laicization is not the only way, not the simplest way, not the most effective way to protect young people from an abusive priest. Reporters are coming up with the wrong answers because they keep asking the wrong question.   

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