The Catholic Church has repeatedly shown great skill in shooting itself in the foot over the problem of pedophile clergy. It has managed to do so again with the new regulations from Rome about pedophilia. Doubtless designed to be a constructive if overdue solution, the new documents create obscurity which makes the Church look bad again.

The media paradigm for the Church's response is that the Church has covered up the offenses of priests who abuse children, stonewalled complaining parents, connived with law enforcement authorities to prevent indictments, beaten parents down, and finally tried (usually unsuccessfully) to use hardball lawyers and hardball tactics to fend off civil suits. There is also a suspicion that the Church claims exemption from civil law because it is under the protection of canon law.

A lot of past events have contributed to the shaping of this paradigm. When he was a bishop in Bridgeport Connecticut, Cardinal Egan argued that the Church was not responsible for what priests might have done because they were not employees but "independent contractors."

The Church is up to its old tricks, imply the media, when reporting the new Vatican regulations. Priests will be tried in secret trials by other priests and will be able to appeal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (once the Holy Office and before that the Inquisition). Victims will not be given a chance to testify. Civil law is ignored. Nothing is changed.

As best as I can determine, most of these assumptions are not true. Suspected abuse by priests must still be reported promptly to law enforcement (even by other priests, as Cardinal Law made clear last week in Boston). The various supervisory commissions in the dioceses (in Chicago more lay than clerical and including women) will still have the duty and obligation to remove men from parish work (in Chicago for the protection of children) and to recommend whether they be reassigned to parishes. The victims and their families still have the right to seek legal relief. Moreover, it is unlikely in most dioceses that there will be implicit conspiracy with law enforcement to give the priest "another chance."

If the bishop wishes to dismiss a man from the priesthood (reduce him to the "lay state," as it is infelicitously put), the man still has a right to a canonical trial and the right to appeal the verdict. It is with these latter stages that the Vatican documents are apparently concerned. I say "apparently" because no one is quite sure whether the Vatican is prepared to order a bishop to reassign a priest to a parish, after the bishop has refused to do so. Should that be what is intended the results could be catastrophic. If the Vatican assumes responsibility for the reassignment of a priest, then it would become liable to a suit in American courts for whatever the priest might do. The curialists may say that they can't be sued in a civil court. To which the only response is, just try it, fellas, and see what happens.

Hopefully that won't occur.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that there are some serious disadvantages to the determination that a priest faced with laicization has the right to a secret trial by a group of other priests. In the Catholic Church, all canonical trials are secret because this is still the 19th century: The Vatican doesn't know from open trials. Moreover, on the basis of past performances, most priests would never convict another priest. Nor will they report suspicions of child abuse to civil authorities, though they are obliged to by law. While they will admit that the problem exists, they will defend the priest in every case and attack the victims and their families, often viciously. All they want, priests will still tell you, is money. Most priests assume no responsibility for preventing abuse. It's the bishops' problem, they say, regardless of the savage harm done to the image of the priesthood. The various priest organizations around the country have issued statements which are more sympathetic to the priests than to the victims. One suspects that Jesus would not be pleased with such pharisaical clergy.

There are happy exceptions to these generalizations. Yet one should not trust a group of priests to convict one of their own. The Church doesn't know from the possibility of putting lay people on boards which could reduce a priest to the lay state.

It just doesn't get it. Not even now.

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