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Posted November 12, 2004

The Charter and Norms Two Years Later:
Toward a Resolution of Recent Canonical Dilemmas

Origins Nov. 11, 2004: Vol. 34, No.22

Questions related to the church’s handling of cases involving priests accused of or found guilty of sexually abusing a minor were discussed in a speech Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, a canon law professor at The Catholic University of America, gave Oct. 12 to the convention ofthe Canon Law Society of America in Pittsburgh. Some of the issues he discussed were the definition of “sexual abuse,” an accused priest’s right to a good reputation, zero tolerance for the sexual abuse of a minor, the remuneration of priests facing a sexual-abuse charge and how fast cases are processed.

The speech was timely in light of the review the U.S. bishops are undertaking of their sexual-abuse policies. That review called for in the bishops’ 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” is now just in its preliminary stage but is expected to be concluded at the bishops’ June 2005 meeting. Jenkins said that in adopting the charter and the norms for its implementation the bishops intended to propose a pragmatic solution to a complex and destructive problem. He added: “To the surprise of many, or perhaps with no surprise at all, criticism of the bishops’ pragmatic solution surfaced quickly. Jenkins cited a recent article in America Magazine in which Cardinal Avery Dulles briefly discussed 13 areas where he considers some flawed theory and practice to have arisen regarding resolution of clerical sexual abuse of minors. The 13 topics chosen by the cardinal constitute an excellent summary of the more controversial and debated questions of the past two years. They provide an appropriate framework, then, for my own observations. With this in mind, I will offer some of my own thoughts regarding several of the issues raised by Cardinal Dulles in his insightful contribution. My goal is to demonstrate that some of the criticisms lodged against the law – even as they are worthy of consideration – comprise but one half of the story. The hope is, said Jenkins, that revision of the charter and “Essential Norms” will take place most constructively when we have considered all aspects thoroughly, the weak as well as the strong points of the law as it now stands. Accordingly, I will largely emphasize the strengths of the current law and practice.

Quotes of Interest from the Talk:

“Because innocence of all wrongdoing cannot always be inferred from acquittal of a criminal charge, the code allows for lesser measures — warnings and penal remedies to be specific – to be applied against the defendant by ecclesiastical authority even though the crime alleged could not be proven to moral certitude.”

“In the meantime, debate should also continue as to whether or not the particular law determination of sexual abuse of a minor in the revised norms needs to specify further various acts and grades of sexual abuse.”

“As a consequence, zero tolerance as a disciplinary measure may be the necessary response for the time being if the protection of children is the paramount principle that American bishops have adopted.”

“Perhaps the standard should remain that no public ministry will occur, although the facts in a given case can allow for the rarest of exceptions. But even here, the dilemma remains: Ecclesiastical authorities are once again asked to play that game of chance for which they have been roundly criticized in the past.”

“I concur with the cardinal on the practical point he makes. Swifter resolution of cases while maintaining strictly the norm of justice must be a priority. Indeed, this is now occurring, at least with regard to the caseload at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”