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Question for discussion: Should a bishop defend a priest convicted of crime?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 06, 2010

Baltimore’s Archbishop Edwin O’Brien has voiced his objection to a deal that could allow a convicted child-rapist to leave prison, having served a 15-year term. The convict, John Merzbacher—who had been a teacher in a Catholic school—was originally sentenced to four life terms. An appeals court has ruled that he should have been offered a chance to accept a lesser sentence.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m 100% with Archbishop O’Brien on this question. When I see the words “child rape,” I don’t want to see the words “lesser sentence” anywhere in the vicinity.

But here’s a mental experiment. If the convict were a priest who had served in a Baltimore Catholic parish, rather than a layman who had worked in a parochial school, would the archbishop make the same argument for tough sentencing? Should he?

This is not intended as an invitation to criticize Archbishop O’Brien. I don’t know what he would have done in this hypothetical situation and I don’t intend to speculate. Rather I mean to ask a question: What are the responsibilities of a diocesan bishop toward a priest who has been duly convicted for a serious crime? Does the common good require the bishop to seek lenient treatment for the corrupt priest—as a loving father might beg the court’s mercy for his son, without denying the son's guilt? Or does the bishop’s responsibility to the faithful require him to seek even harsher punishment, in order to set an example and bolster public trust?

I’m asking the question. I don’t think the answer is obvious. Discuss. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Aug. 08, 2010 7:15 PM ET USA

    Evangelium Vitae 57 took the idea that state has a legitimate interest in seeking retributive justice off the table. It seems odd that Abp O'Brien is joining the victims and victims families in not only seeking to protect society from Merzbacher (which could be done with an ankle bracelet), but to seek an extension of his suffering through the retribution and vengeance of a longer prison sentence.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Aug. 06, 2010 9:26 PM ET USA

    romy, which canon(s) would that be? If you're going to cite Canon Law, cite it. To your question, Phil, the man in this instance is as much 'son' to the bishop as is a priest. And presumably, a priest who did such a heinous thing and was duly sentenced would have been laicized. Hence, the priestly-episcopal relation ceases. A harsher sentence? No. He should seek a just sentence, one that will protect the community and, one hopes, change the offender. That's the common good to be sought.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 06, 2010 6:05 PM ET USA

    Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. A bishop getting into the state's sentencing business can be messy, and the state may be accused of favoritism or discrimination if it allows a bishop to plead for his "son". The bishop might also be accused of bias. The bishop's responsibilities are laid out in Canon Law - let him look to that as a guide.