Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I

Q:  There are so many stories of priest-abusers shielded in past years by their superiors, who allowed it to continue.  But not all the accusations are true, right?  Do you know of any cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, who are really innocent?  –Susan

A:  It would probably be difficult to find a canon lawyer who doesn’t!

One might say that the response of the Catholic hierarchy to allegations of sexual abuse today, as opposed to several decades ago, has undergone a pendulum-shift.  We’ve all heard far too many horrific true stories about abuse-victims in years gone by, who gathered enough courage to report offending priests to church authorities—only to be ignored, or even threatened if they took their case to the police.  It goes without saying that such conduct on the part of bishops and religious superiors was utterly unconscionable.  The day will come when these church authorities will answer to God for this heinous neglect of their responsibility.

But now that pretty much everyone has acknowledged that this sort of response to allegations of abuse was unacceptable and outrageous, we’re seeing a shift to the opposite extreme—and the resulting injustice is very different, but just as horrific.  Nowadays, when an accusation is made against a priest, his superiors are likely to instantly accept it as credible, and penalize him, even before fully investigating the claims.  More often than not, this knee-jerk reaction is the result of fear, as church authorities are desperate to avoid bad publicity and the perception that they are “soft” on child-molesting clerics.

Neither of these extremes is in accord with the law, which for inexplicable reasons seems more often than not to be ignored by too many ecclesiastical authorities, who act sometimes as if it doesn’t exist.  As a veteran canonist once commented to me grimly, “these guys seem to think that they are canon law.”  Many chancery officials and religious superiors may be surprised to hear it, but there is a procedure that must be followed whenever a cleric under their authority is accused of misconduct—and ignoring that procedure is a violation of the law!  Let’s first take a look at what canon law requires be done by church authorities in these situations, and then we’ll be able to see how actual practice measures up.

It all begins with canon 1717, which describes what a superior is supposed to do when an allegation of abuse (or other criminal activity, for that matter) is brought to his attention.  If the accusation at least has the appearance of truth, he is to conduct an investigation into the matter, unless the circumstances are such as to render an investigation superfluous (c. 1717.1).  There are a couple of separate points here that are critically important, so let’s take this paragraph of the canon apart.

First off, if it does not seem, even at a superficial glance, that the accusation could possibly be true, the superior is understandably not expected to investigate the accused.  This means that obviously false allegations are expected to be snuffed out from the start!  Imagine, for example, an accuser who claims that Father X abused him while teaching at a particular high school in Kansas—yet Father X has never even been in Kansas, or has never been a teacher, or has never been anywhere near that high school, or wasn’t even a priest yet in the year the alleged abuse took place.  It should be clear to anyone with common sense that the claim must be false.  Either the accuser is sincerely confused about the identity of the priest-abuser, or the entire allegation is spurious.  In such a situation, the law takes it for granted that the innocent Father X will be defended by his bishop or religious superior, the accuser will be informed to that effect, and the attack on Father X should end there.

Secondly, canon 1717.1 notes that an investigation is to be conducted into the accusations if they might be true.  There’s nothing vague or optional about this requirement—when an accusation is made, the accused is not to be punished unless his superior has actually ascertained that the allegation has merit!  The canon notes that an exception to this requirement (which once again is merely common sense) would only arise if particular circumstances rendered an investigation unnecessary.  For example, if the accused immediately admitted the allegations were completely true, his superior could naturally skip the investigation into their veracity.

When an investigation is begun, canon 1717.2 asserts that care must be taken to ensure that it does not call into question anybody’s good name.  This isn’t simply a matter of courtesy.  Under the Code of Canon Law, everyone–not just priests!–has the right to his reputation, and the right to privacy (c. 220).  If Father X has been accused of sexual abuse, he’s supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty.  Just because someone alleges he was sexually molested by Father X doesn’t automatically mean it’s true.  Father X may be entirely innocent of the allegation—and if so, it is a grave violation of his rights to spread the word that he might be a molester.

For that matter, even if Father X is subsequently proven guilty of the accusations, he still retains these rights under canon law (although the country where he committed the crime may have its own laws on this matter).  No ecclesiastical superior has the authority to make a public declaration that (for example) an internal investigation has found that Father X did indeed commit sexual abuse.  Canonically, this is the very same law that would prohibit a superior from publicizing that Father X has cancer, or is an alcoholic, or is suicidal.  No matter how horrible a monster Father X may actually be, church officials by law cannot publicly drag him through the mud.  It may very well happen that his accuser, or the civil authorities who’ve arrested him, announce to reporters what has taken place.  But this is not to be done by Father’s ecclesiastical superiors.  Note that this requirement has nothing whatsoever to do with hiding anything, or “covering it up,” and everything to do with the human dignity that by law is still to be accorded to Father X no matter what.

And speaking of human dignity, it should be observed that an individual’s rights are actually broader and more explicit under canon law than they are under the civil law of most modern nations.  Even the US Constitution, which recognizes that Americans possess an impressive array of civil rights which are lacking in many other countries, does not specifically assert the right to privacy or to one’s good name, found in canon 220!  It can often happen, therefore, that the Church seeks to protect these rights of a cleric accused of a crime, even if the state has no obligation to do so.

Finally, canon 1717.3 observes that the persons who conduct the investigation into the allegations against Father X are not also to act subsequently as his judge.  There is nothing surprising here, as this is a basic legal principle found in any sound legal system: an investigator who presents evidence of a crime cannot simultaneously sit in judgment on the same case.

As was discussed in “What Does it Mean to ‘Defrock’ a Priest?” the procedure to be followed in cases of clerical abuse was amended back in 2001, when Pope John Paul II issued the motu proprio document Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela.   Since that time, every Catholic bishop and religious superior in the world is required to inform the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) whenever an allegation of sexual abuse is made against a cleric.  This procedural change was made to ensure that these issues are handled in a consistent manner throughout the entire Church—so that identical cases are not handled too leniently (or ignored altogether!) in one diocese or religious institute, while being addressed justly (or even perhaps too rigorously) in another.  While the superior still continues to conduct the investigation required by canon 1717, he must tell CDF what is happening, and follow the Vatican’s directions on how to proceed next.

Meanwhile, regardless of whether the accusations ultimately turn out to be true or false, records of the incident must be kept.  Every diocese throughout the world is required by law to keep locked archives (c. 486.2), containing written records of both purely temporal affairs of the diocese (such as major financial transactions, for example), and spiritual matters (like the consecration of a new parish church).  Mundane items pertaining to matters of public knowledge—like the deeds to property, or annual lists of names of clerics newly ordained for the diocese—will be found here.  This is simply good record-keeping!

But documents pertaining to accusations of clerical sexual abuse—like any paperwork relating to employee misconduct, real or alleged—are to be kept apart from these everyday sorts of records.  Their sensitive nature requires them to be housed in the “secret archive,” which is either a repository completely separate from the ordinary archive, or a locked safe that is housed inside it (c. 489.1).  The term “secret” refers to the fact that these archives contain information that is sensitive and private—it does not imply that anything is being “covered up.”

Before pouncing on the existence of secret archives in order to accuse the Catholic Church of “hiding criminal activity” or “protecting child molestors,” detractors should note that any large secular business in the first world today keeps its personnel records confidential too.  It is impossible for somebody to walk in off the street and demand access to documents relating to (let’s say) the firing of an employee from the Coca-Cola Company or the Xerox Corporation.  Employees have rights, and companies have both the right and the obligation—moral and often legal—to keep personnel matters private.  In this regard the Catholic Church is no different!

Canon law obliges dioceses to occasionally purge their records.  (If you think that this is not done outside the Church, try obtaining your own 30-year-old medical records from your former pediatrician.)  Canon 489.2 requires an annual review of the contents of the secret archives, and the destruction of any papers regarding “criminal cases about moral matters” if the guilty person has died, or if ten years have passed since the matter was concluded and the accused was found guilty.  Nevertheless, before destroying these documents, they are to be summarized, and the synopsis is to be kept in the secret archive permanently.

So how should these rules play out in practice?  In a nutshell, if someone claims to a bishop or religious superior that he was abused by a priest under their authority, the bishop or religious superior is first to assess the claim.  Is it obviously absurd or impossible?  If so, that ought to be the end of it.  But if there might be something to it, the priest’s superior is to investigate the claim—quietly and without fanfare.  Ideally, the accused priest shouldn’t even know that he is being investigated!  If he’s guilty, knowing that he is under investigation by his superiors will naturally put him on his guard—or in an extreme case, it might lead him to do something desperate, like take to flight, or even harm himself.  If he’s innocent, knowing that he’s being investigated can only cause him intense emotional distress which is entirely undeserved.  Both scenarios are thus to be avoided if possible.

At this point, readers who may have some personal knowledge of a situation involving accusations that a priest has committed sexual abuse might possibly be shaking their heads in amazement.  The tragic fact is that in the past few decades, some or all of these canons have been disregarded in far too many cases!  We’ll take a look at some specific examples, and examine some of the tragic consequences, in the next column.

Why is Google hiding the posts on this website in its search results?  Click here for more information.

This entry was posted in Clergy Issues, Crimes and Sanctions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.