Life without parole for priests?

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Jun 08, 2002 12:00 AM
The American Catholic bishops are staring at two challenges. One of them is how to restimulate the faith of the laity in the ministry. A second is how to protect children from wickedly weak priests.

The proposal released to the press by the working committee of bishops, preparing for the plenary session in Dallas next week, goes far in meeting both challenges, but not far enough, in some opinion. What the proposals say is that any priest detected in child abuse will be reported to civil authorities and removed from any ministerial duties in which children figure.

What about the priest who committed the crime many years ago, has submitted to psychological examination, has undergone therapy and has not transgressed again? The reform proposals do not specify that such a priest be discharged from the ministry, let alone defrocked.

Some bishops think this exception unwise, asking for retroactive zero tolerance. Vatican sources are reportedly disturbed at the proposition that allowances should not be made in any circumstance.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis-St.Paul, who headed up the reform committee, said: "We need to believe in the possibility of conversion. We need to believe in the possibility that people can grow, people can turn a corner. Psychologically, medically, we would be fools if we were to say that someone cannot grow."

That is of course correct. Christ forgave his executioners. But in doing so, was he exercising a kind of charity that only divine resources can generate? And anyway, what was to prevent the executioners from further victimizations, on the cross or elsewhere?

The totalists in today's situation are driven less by the need to show the face of mercy than by the need to regenerate the confidence of the laity. How to maneuver, under the circumstances?

The laity see the following:

  • It was priests who committed the crimes.

  • It was bishops (in many cases) who failed to segregate, let alone adequately punish, the priests in question. These are men who, using one vocabulary, would be called criminal; in another, errant.

    Should it be expected that the episcopacy would give primary consideration to the morale of the flock? In specifying severe judgment, as is widely recommended, are the bishops engaged in a form of retribution for having erred in the past by latitudinarian excess?

    The problem is grave. Obviously it is unjust to move with capital severity where there is less than conclusive factual certainty. To the proposal that a priest judged guilty should be defrocked, an Italian professor of dogmatic theology comments, "A priest, victim of an unjust condemnation, is condemned to death."

    Two cardinals, Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Adam Maida of Detroit, recommend something other than defrocking: Send the errant priest to a monastery. "Put him in an atmosphere where he can't do any harm to anybody, but he can still live out his life as a priest." That expedient has the further benefit that to consent to the monastic life would give the sinner a means of reaffirming his faith. A secular priest willing to change entirely the culture of his calling from parish priest to monk would demonstrate to his fellow priests, and to former parishioners, that he was willing to pursue his calling, yea, even unto the confines of cell life, removed from temptations that, on one or more occasions, he proved incapable of resisting.

    When the bishops meet in Dallas, what the Catholic public needs to record is something this side of a Jacobinical hunger to appease the blood lust of the afflicted and the disillusioned. The bishops are governed by a view of life that is distinctive, and they are now challenged to mediate between extremes that are un-Christian in character. Just as sin is exactly that -- sinful -- so a closed mind to any possibility of moral growth is a departure from the Christian way.