What to Do About Sex Abuse in the Church?

Statue of St. Peter at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I confess that I really don’t want to talk about sex abuse in the Church again. But Pope Francis does, so perhaps we might help him and his newly appointed commission by taking a trip through some unexpected and ancient terrain.

I was at work on an article several summers ago about the vexed question of “canonical territory,” especially regarding Catholic-Orthodox relations in Ukraine and Russia. I never finished that article, in part because I am constitutionally prone to the sins of sloth and gluttony and decided that martinis and cigars in my backyard while reading books on totally unrelated topics were much more interesting activities, and so I fled from my computer to my chaise longue.  But all was not lost: in my research for that article, and as penance for my sins of the flesh, I had forced myself to slog through every canon I could lay my hands on from local, provincial, regional, national, and ecumenical councils in both East and West. I was looking to see what, if anything, they said about questions of territory and jurisdiction. 

I was not, in other words, looking for canons dealing with clerical discipline, but in my reading it quickly emerged that I could not avoid them, since it seems that almost every council ever held had to deal with clerical malfeasance in one form or other. Naughty priests are not new! Council after council seemed to have something to say about priests or bishops who commit offenses, especially those of the flesh—adultery, sodomy, and the abuse of minors. Again and again one thing was clear: clerics of any rank (including those in minor orders) who were guilty of any sexual sin at all were to be removed from office and never again allowed to hold any clerical office anywhere in the Church. This was a life sentence.

Another discovery staggered me: this penalty of permanent deposition was to be applied even to consensual sins involving adults. Thus if a priest was having a consensual affair with a woman in his parish, which both freely entered and willingly consummated, he was to be removed forever. Even if the woman did not want him punished—even if she had confessedly seduced him—he was still to be removed.  

If the pope’s new commission wants or needs some advice, then I think the early canons provide it: any sexual sin is grounds for immediate and permanent dismissal from any and all offices in the Church, up to and including the episcopate. But more than this needs to happen, and here we do not need another commission: we need ruthless papal action, and friendly Francis may be precisely the person to deliver it with a fist of iron underneath his ermine glove.

Though it pains me to say it, because I think it is still a fragile practice in the Church today following Vatican II, one of the clear problems since at least 2002 has been a misunderstanding and misapplication of “collegiality.” There were, as others have noted, really two scandals: the sex abuse itself, and then the cover-up by some bishops. There was, in other words, a lack of accountability by bishops themselves, and the last two popes were nowhere near as ruthless in holding their brothers to account as they should have been, John Paul II especially. Thus it would seem that in these cases, collegiality must now give way to sweeping episcopal accountability when it comes to sexual abuse. If local episcopal conferences will not be given genuinely synodal authority to discipline and depose delinquent bishops, then it is up to the bishop of Rome to do so. The Pope just relieved Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his diocese in Germany for imprudent and excessive spending. Good. Let us have more of this pour encourager les autres.

For too many Catholics, the most infuriating aspect of the abuse scandal over the last 12 years and more has been the way in which bishops have escaped accountability, particularly bishops who shuffled priests around or did not act swiftly and decisively to root out the problem. Whose blood has not boiled at seeing Bernard Cardinal Law swan about his cushy sinecure at St. Mary Major in Rome? He should have been locked away in a rough cell in a monastery on an island in the White Sea, allowed out twice a day for Mass and scrubbing toilets. And a similar fate should today befall any bishop who covered up abuse or failed to remove abusive priests from the priesthood immediately and permanently. If Pope Francis’ new commission is to be effective and the Church is to put this scandal behind her once and for all, then let the sackings begin. Nothing short of this will be sufficient to regain the bishops’, and thus the Church’s, shattered credibility.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 109 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).