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Redrafting the Church's Rules on Redemption


A religion based on redemption and forgiveness, Roman Catholicism has not always been consistent about how those states of grace can be attained and who can attain them.

In the early church, the sacrament of penance did not even exist. Some extremists felt the only way for someone who committed a serious sin, like adultery, to return to the church would be through a second baptism. But St. Augustine and others in the hierarchy held that serious sinners should get one chance at forgiveness, if they underwent extreme penance and public humiliation. Errant priests, though, were barred from the ministry.

As they head to Dallas this week to devise a national plan for dealing with priests who sexually abuse children and adolescents, American bishops are attempting to draw their own distinctions about who can be forgiven and under what circumstances.

In trying for a plan that satisfies canon law, complies with civil law and meets the demands of an angry laity, the bishops have come up with a confusing set of guidelines that some critics feel is unfair and, in fact, contradicts civil practice.

While it may not rank with the wrangling over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the bishops' system can seem arbitrary. Under a proposal released last week, priests facing one accusation of abuse in the past could be allowed to remain in the ministry, but those accused more than once could not. A priest treated for sexually abusing a minor in the past but who is still considered a potential risk would be allowed to say Mass, but only privately, and would not be allowed to wear priestly clothes. One accused of molestation in the future will be defrocked automatically.

The bishops know they have to appear tough in order to placate the legions of Catholics infuriated by revelations of priestly abuse and systematic coverups that at times prevented the state from taking criminal action against priests. They have to be mindful of criminal justice precedents for handling accusations and establishing standards of proof, while trying to protect priests from unfounded allegations.

But the bishops are also wrestling with a troublesome problem that has no parallel in the civil system: how much can a church founded on precepts of forgiveness be seen as foreclosing the possibility of redemption?

Divisions are already apparent within an uneasy church. Many abuse victims, along with vast numbers of angry Catholics, are demanding zero tolerance, meaning that all abusers including one-time offenders would be thrown out of the priesthood forever. To them, establishing gradations of guilt as in the draft document is nothing more than ecclesiastical hairsplitting that protects abusers. They also are pushing for the bishops to address their own culpability in having shifted from parish to parish priests they knew were abusers.

The bishops realize that automatic sentences can create injustices in religion just as they can in the criminal justice system (the much-protested Rockefeller drug laws in New York State being one example). And they undoubtedly are under substantial pressure to shield not only their priests, but in some cases themselves, from an endless string of damaging accusations.

So far, their approach seems to satisfy almost no one, and could end up being changed in Dallas.

Part of the problem seems to be the bishops' inability to reconcile the apparent conflicts even contradictions between canon law and civil law, at least not with the clarity that American Catholics now require. Civil law lays out crimes and punishments, but Catholic doctrine says there is no sin for which a believer cannot be forgiven. When asked how often a sinner could be forgiven, Christ's answer was seventy times seven. When the pope recently met with American cardinals to discuss the unfolding scandal, he condemned sexual abuse as a crime but he also urged the cardinals to be mindful of "the power of conversion," meaning the possibility of a repentant sinner finding salvation.

That possibility is the reason Sister Camille D'Arienzo and other nuns from the Sisters of Mercy convent in Brooklyn held a prayer service for the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy J. McVeigh, and why they oppose a zero-tolerance rule for priests.

"If you have zero tolerance, in many instances you are virtually killing the priest," said Sister Camille.

"Are we willing to sacrifice forever the possibility of goodness in a person who has sinned once?"

Susan J. Stabile, a professor of law at St. John's University School of Law, and a Catholic, agrees with Sister Camille that it would be wrong to apply zero tolerance to old allegations of abuse against priests who have served their parishes without incident for decades.

"If someone has remorse, and the record shows there is no continuing danger to others, the appropriate response is forgiveness," said Professor Stabile, whose own pastor resigned recently over a 35-year-old accusation he claimed was untrue.

And there are further arguments about whether redemption should really be the sticking point. Garry Wills, the professor and author, said it was salvation, the delivery of people from original sin through baptism, and not redemption, the restoration of man from sin, that is the central message of Christianity.

Mr. Wills, whose book "Why I Am a Catholic" is being published soon, said there was no reason to accommodate the sinful actions of God's representatives on earth.

DAVID CLOHESSY, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said that in setting up so many definitions of guilt for different categories of abuse, the bishops show they have not understood the problem and may actually be contradicting civil law by not making the file of accused priests available to prosecutors.

Church officials have insisted that there are times when canon law stands far apart from civil law. Last month a Vatican lawyer argued that the church should not hand over every allegation of sex abuse to civil authorities because from a canonical point of view bishops are not specifically responsible for the actions of priests.

But supporters of zero tolerance see the church's stance as sadly misguided.

"The analogy here is Bobby Frank Cherry," Mr. Clohessy said, referring to the elderly white man convicted last month of bombing a black church in Alabama in 1963. "The bishops would look at him and say, `Here's a guy who's been cured. He hasn't bombed a single church in 40 years. He's led an exemplary life. Why should he be punished?' But society incarcerated him anyway because we assume that just because he didn't get caught, he was not an angel."