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Should the Church refuse court-mandated abuse settlements?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 06, 2014

From time to time I’ve emphasized that the Church is a public institution in her own right, with a legitimate spiritual and moral jurisdiction not only over her own members but over every single human person. She is, after all, the continuation of Christ’s mission on earth, His ongoing Presence in the world—the representative of the One who has been given all authority in heaven and earth (Mt 28:18).

This does not mean that civil authority is illegitimate; it grows out of human community for the ordering of man’s temporal social ends. St. Paul regarded it as manifestation of God’s authority for the common good (Rom 13:1-7). The Catholic Church does not minimize the importance of civil government, the temporal sword. Nor should the Church cling to whatever temporal authority she may acquire in different periods, nor to excessive wealth not at the service of her mission.

But the Church is the last word on justice, and the injustice of the fleecing of the Church under the authority of secular courts in the wake of the sex abuse scandal is manifest. Civil government is permitting (encouraging?) the Church to be singled out for special punishment even as it protects by its own laws other institutions (such as schools) that are even more at fault. The settlement monies, ostensibly for the victims, serve largely to enrich lawyers. So-called “victims groups” frequently have their own anti-Catholic agenda. The Church’s right to maintain the confidentiality of records directly relating to her mission is consistently abused. And what is being taken from the Church is the fruit of sacrificial contributions of innocent lay persons, given for the furtherance of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. This is not the same as a punitive reduction in corporate profit.

Of course, because the hierarchy of the Church was for a prolonged period inexcusably irresponsible in responding to abuse, and because of the contemporary narrative of sexual abuse which (aided and abetted by lopsided court proceedings) erroneously focuses primarily on the Church, sexual abuse is easily the worst possible issue for the Church to choose to begin to reclaim her own jurisdictional authority. The possibility of public sympathy is essentially nil. Prudence backs the Church into a bit of a corner here.

But it seems to me that churchmen with faith and courage—and especially churchmen who really understand the Church’s character as a public institution with legitimate spiritual and moral jurisdiction—ought by now to be considering a three-step response: First, to be proactive in punishing the guilty; second, to be proactive in identifying, supporting and voluntarily compensating victims; and third, having done all this, to be proactive about telling the civil courts to go fly a kite.

I am not sure that imprisonment of Church leaders and the seizure of Catholic assets at gun point would be worse than the present state of affairs. But I am sure that for every year the Church refuses to acknowledge and build upon her own jurisdictional identity, her mission is further weakened. Her identity is compromised and her credibility eroded.

Remember that I am not talking about jurisdiction only to resist the depredations of civil power. This is not a question of being “self-serving”. Rather, I am talking about jurisdiction to effect the superior implementation of justice that the Church alone can provide. It is a question of doing things right, of punishing the guilty, restoring the innocent, and protecting what the faithful have offered for the Church’s Divine mission.

Civil authority may come from God, but it arises through the vagaries of history, with no obvious justification for one authority to thrive and rule in a particular region when another does not. If one did not believe in Providence, one would be forced to admit that all civil authority is essentially accidental. But Church authority comes explicitly from God by His specific writ. This has implications which the modern Church has, at the very least, too long ignored. When any temporal authority behaves in a manifestly unjust manner, the Church, for all the warts of her members, is in a position to judge.

Respect for such judgment is another matter. It depends heavily on the probity of the Church’s own example, and there can be no question that it makes most sense to start there. But there can also be no question that the neglect of these principles is more costly than we can possibly imagine.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FredC - May. 09, 2014 8:40 PM ET USA

    The accusations will continue so long as false accusations are not punished.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - May. 07, 2014 11:00 AM ET USA

    @jg23753479: Does your diocese have a *name* by any chance? And what were these so-called "iniquitous" practices? And were those methods any different than what was commonly practiced at the time they were done?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 06, 2014 4:22 PM ET USA

    All good points. Many will remember, though, that in more than a few cases -- my own diocese, notably -- the Church was made to come clean about some very iniquitous practices ONLY by threats from the state's AG and his staff. As you suggest, as long as this approach remains the norm in the Church (and it currently remains the norm in far too many dioceses), most people will be content to trust the heavy hand of secular law to straighten things out.

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