In a recent issue of America, Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis reviewed the accomplishments of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (10/18). While there is much to praise in his article, I would respectfully but emphatically disagree with two arguments he made.
Archbishop Flynn states: “To keep children safe and to restore trust and confidence, it became necessary to remove all offenders.” The charter’s one-size-fits-all approach makes no distinction between rape and a kiss or an inappropriate touching over the clothes. It makes no distinction between a serial predator and one-time offender. It makes no distinction between an offense committed yesterday and one committed 40 years ago. This makes no sense and is unjust. It panders to those who thirst for vengeance. The church cannot yield to vengeance. To do so is to betray the Gospel.
Also, the charter has an all-or-nothing approach to ministry. Given the concerns about returning offenders to parish ministry, why would it not be sufficient, in appropriate cases, to assign an accused priest to ministry that involves no contact with children?
The church teaches that ordination results in an ontological change. A person takes on a new identity. He is a priest forever, not merely an employee who can be fired. It seems that the credibility of the bishops has been so damaged by the poor judgments of some bishops that all are afraid to make any distinctions or to exercise any judgment.
Archbishop Flynn says that accused priests are afforded the protections of canon law. This is simply not true. In my experience with helping hundreds of priests, when a priest is accused he is “guilty until proven guiltier.”
Dioceses routinely engage in the practice of “name and shame,” whereby a priest against whom there is found to be a suspicion of misconduct with a minor is publicly named and removed from ministry. Once the bell of “child abuser” is rung, it can never be un-rung.
Often the diocese will announce that an accusation is “credible” or even “substantiated.” Such a finding is based mostly on the impressions of the initial interviewer of the accuser, with little investigation and no cross-examination. Such a process is contrary to canonical due process and fundamental fairness. It is small comfort to have a canonical trial after a public lynching.
Many canonical processes will turn out to be inconclusive. In the secular courts, that would result in the accused being freed. But an accused priest cannot return to ministry unless he can prove the allegation to be false. Once an allegation has been declared to be credible, the burden of proof shifts in effect to the priest to prove his innocence. Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany did this successfully through an independent investigator, but it cost his diocese over a million dollars.
Evidently Bishop Hubbard saw that a canonical process would be inadequate to clear his name. An ordinary priest who is accused does not stand much of a chance. All priests are vulnerable. There is a double standard.
In the past two years, the bishops have accomplished a great deal in addressing the problem of sexual abuse of minors. However, when the bishops review the charter, they must correct these two injustices.
Finally, in sharp contrast to Cardinal Avery Dulles’ previous article in America entitled “Rights of Accused Priests” (6/21), Archbishop Flynn’s article illustrates the difference between Cardinal Dulles’s assertion—that making decisions must be based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the authentic teachings of the church, and in this case as found particularly in the Code of Canon Law—and continuing to base decisions on the inadequate charter.