What Does it Mean to “Defrock” a Priest?

Q: What does it mean when a priest is “defrocked”?  Sorry but it sounds like tearing his clothes off!  –Jane

A: References to priests being “defrocked” have recently turned up in numerous articles in the newspapers.  Perhaps the most infamous story was the New York Times piece suggesting that Pope Benedict XVI, while still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under the late Pope John Paul II, failed to take appropriate action against a notorious child molester here in the US.

Since the authors of such stories generally sound quite knowledgeable about the Church’s procedures for dealing with priests who commit this heinous crime, it may come as a surprise to many readers that the term “defrock” is found nowhere in canon law. Phrases like “defrocked priest” thus are legally inaccurate and amount to nothing more than street-talk!

What writers using such imprecise terminology are apparently trying to reference is the involuntary laicization of a cleric. “Defrocking” refers to the fact that a priest who is laicized can no longer wear the clerical collar that identifies him as a member of the clergy. In this sense, Jane’s hunch that it pertains to his obligation to change his manner of dress is on-track (although no tearing is involved).

We saw in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” that priestly ordination remains valid forever, so a priest will always be a priest (c. 290).  Unfortunately, however, sometimes ordained priests decide, for a variety of reasons, that they no longer can or want to live as priests. In such cases we saw that they can petition the Vatican to be released from the clerical state (c. 290 n. 3). This is often referred to as laicization.

The situation described in that column, however, involved a voluntary decision made by a priest himself. Such a free choice could not be termed “defrocking,” which implies a punitive measure taken against a priest because of objectionable conduct. The more correct canonical term for such a punishment is dismissal from the clerical state. Sometimes this penalty is also termed forced laicization. A priest who is forcibly laicized still remains a priest, since, as we have seen, it is impossible to undo his priestly ordination (c. 1338.2). But he is forbidden from exercising it for the rest of his life.

There is no harsher penalty that can possibly be meted out to a Catholic priest than this. Consequently it is reserved for only the most heinous offenses. In the code there are several different crimes, or delicts, for which dismissal from the clerical state is the severest possible penalty. Canon 1394.1, for example, asserts that a cleric who attempts to marry—the word “attempts” implies that the Church will always consider such a marriage invalid in any case—can under some circumstances be dismissed from the clerical state. Similarly, canon 1395.1 states that a cleric living in concubinage (i.e., living with a woman as if she were his wife), or engaging in some other external sin against the Sixth Commandment, can receive the same punishment if he persists in this offence.

Canon 1387 asserts that a priest who, in the course of hearing a confession, solicits a penitent to commit a sin against the Sixth Commandment can, in more serious cases, be dismissed from the clerical state. And finally, canon 1395.2 notes that a cleric can be dismissed from the clerical state if he commits an offense against the Sixth Commandment with a minor under the age of 16. This last delict, of course, is the crime which justifiably has received so much attention lately in general.

So did the former Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect of the CDF, fail in his duty to penalize priests who were found to have sexually molested children? The particular case that recently raised the ire of the New York Times was that of a now-deceased priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The Times’ writer clearly objects to the notion that Ratzinger failed to dismiss this priest from the clerical state—in other words, to “defrock” him. To better understand the situation, let’s take a look at some of the facts of the case and at what canon law actually requires.

First of all, the priest in question was accused of abusing children as early as 1955. There was no action taken by his Archdiocese at that time to remove him from his position at a school for deaf children, to suspend him from ministry, or still less to dismiss him from the priesthood—so he continued to work in close contact with children for nearly twenty years more, during which time the abuse continued.

Secondly, the CDF in Rome was only informed of the case in 1996—41 years after the first allegations against the priest in question had been made! By that time, the priest-molester was retired, and no longer surrounded by children on a regular basis. The then-Archbishop of Milwaukee petitioned Rome to dismiss this priest from the clerical state, decades after the abuses had taken place. Prior to this 1996 request, the Archdiocese apparently did not impose any sort of canonical penalty on this priest, who served as a parish pastor for many years after leaving the school where the sexual abuse had been ongoing.

By the time that the former Cardinal Ratzinger first would have heard of this case, the accused priest was in very ill health (he actually died in 1998, before his case had been resolved). It was clear enough that his horrific crimes would not be repeated.

When he learned that his Archbishop was seeking to have him dismissed from the priesthood, the priest-molester wrote a letter to Cardinal Ratzinger. Noting his age and health-issues, he wrote, “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood.” There is no evidence that Ratzinger ever responded—in fact, we don’t even know whether he ever read the letter himself. We only know that there is no documentation indicating that the Congregation sought to have the priest dismissed from the priesthood, or “defrocked.”

So did the CDF, under its then-Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger, therefore fail in its duty to forcibly laicize this priest? Not so fast.

It should first be pointed out that the CDF did not even have jurisdiction over clerical sex-abuse cases in the Church until 2001, when Pope John Paul II issued his motu proprio document Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (available on the Vatican’s website, but in Latin). Prior to that, cases were being handled by diocesan bishops themselves—and unfortunately, as we all know too well, in many cases that meant that they weren’t being handled at all. It is widely understood that it was Cardinal Ratzinger himself who urged this change in procedure, because he was concerned that necessary steps must be taken to properly investigate every allegation of clerical abuse and take action on those which were proven to be true.

In the Milwaukee case, which was sent to Rome five years earlier, the Congregation was only involved because the sexual abuse had happened as the result of soliciting children in the confessional (and thus fell under canon 1387, mentioned above). Since the crime in this case involved a sacrament, the CDF had to be informed. But the actual proceedings against the priest in question had to be initiated by the source that had informed the CDF in the first place, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. And true, they were in fact initiated—but only decades after church officials there had learned of what had repeatedly occurred at the hands of one of their priests.

This is why the current Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, stated frankly on Holy Thursday this year that

Mistakes were made in the Lawrence Murphy case. They were not made in Rome in 1996, 1997 and 1998. The mistakes were made here, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, in the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s, by the Church, by civil authorities, by church officials, and by bishops. And for that, I beg your forgiveness in the name of the Church and in the name of this Archdiocese of Milwaukee…. We hope and pray our actions have become a model for what TO do after decades of what NOT to do.

Sadly, we see here a “good” example of why jurisdiction over clerical abuse cases now belongs to the CDF, and no longer to individual diocesan bishops. For that shift in jurisdiction, the Church can thank at least in part the former Cardinal Ratzinger.

Apart from the Milwaukee case, there are many other examples of this hideous crime being trumpeted in the media all over the world (Ireland and Germany, for example, have recently been rocked by comparable stories). Why aren’t all the priests in these cases being dismissed from the clerical state, or “defrocked”? To find the answer, all we need to do is look closely at the wording of the law.

In every one of the canons cited above, that describe crimes for which the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state can be imposed, this punishment is mentioned only as a possibility. In other words, forced laicization is never a mandatory punishment. Take canon 1395.2, the canon addressing sexual abuse of minors: the law states that the perpetrator is to be punished with “just penalties,” not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants. It is possible to dismiss a child-molesting priest from the priesthood; but it is certainly not compulsory in every single case.

Lest readers begin to wonder whether the Code of Canon Law is too soft on criminals, we can easily make some comparisons here with US criminal law, to put it all in proper perspective. Every single state in this country has a law against premeditated murder—sometimes called first-degree murder, sometimes called something else. In several states, this crime may be punishable by death. But the law never says that every person convicted of this crime must be put to death! This is left to the judgment of either the judge or the jury (depending on the court system), and not all convicted murderers receive the same sentence. There certainly are states where particularly horrendous murderers are put to death, while others are sent to prison for life, and still others are imprisoned for lesser periods. This in no way suggests that in some cases, premeditated murder “isn’t so bad”; murder will, and should, always be one of the most hideous crimes imaginable. But there are circumstances in which reasonable people do conclude that one murder is far worse than another—and sentences are meant to reflect this.

Canon law in this respect is similar. There is no such thing as a “minor” sexual-abuse case, for they are all horrific and leave their victims scarred for the rest of their lives. But the fact remains that the circumstances surrounding some are even worse than others, and the punishments inflicted on their perpetrators should and do vary for this reason.

This is why it is so absurd for the New York Times and other secular media sources to criticize Pope Benedict because this or that priest was found guilty of abuse, but was not “defrocked.” It is undeniable that in the past, there were many substantiated cases where no punishment was meted out at all, and nobody in the Church today is suggesting that this was ever an acceptable response to a truthful accusation. But as for those cases where a proper investigation has been made and a cleric has been punished in some other way, journalists have no right to judge whether that cleric should have been dismissed from the clerical state. Only church authorities do.

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