Canon Law and the Protection of Children

Interview with U.S. Scholar Edward Peters on the Revised Norms

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ANN ARBOR, Michigan, DEC. 12, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Will the U.S. bishops' revised "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" help remedy the clergy sex-abuse scandals?



For a perspective on the problem, ZENIT turned to Edward Peters, professor of canon law at Ave Maria University and author of the English translation of "The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law" (Ignatius Press, 2001).

ZENIT: The revised Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is ready to be enforced in the United States, but don't some observers fear that its norms will offer only second-class protection to victims?

Peters: Certainly some critics have made that claim. Various victims' groups have concluded -- somewhat understandably, I think -- that the Church's system of accountability was tried, and it failed. But they're wrong.

What happened was that too many, including bishops, actually ignored our canonical legal system as this crisis mounted. This is where I think the failure should be chiefly located.

Q: What would you suggest explains this neglect of canon law?

Peters: I think several factors contributed. First, as everyone knows, there has been a general attitude of "antinomianism," or suspicion of law itself, in many Church circles since the Second Vatican Council.

The legitimate pastoral character of the council was seized on by some as an excuse to downplay the importance of law and of sound procedures in ecclesiastical life, making it much more difficult for the proper role of law in any society, including one like the Church, to be fully appreciated.

Second, many of the men who are now bishops received little formal canonical training during their seminary days so they were less aware of the numerous canonical aspects of their ministry and thus less inclined to look to canonists for advice over the years. Compound that with, for example, the steady drop in the number of canon lawyers over the years caused by fewer bishops sending fewer clerics and laity to study canon law, and so on.

Suffice it to say, though, that the last few years have seen some dramatic improvements in each of these areas. The most recent example was just last month, when the Congregation for Catholic Education extended the training requirements for those wishing to serve as canon lawyers. Today, individuals at all levels of Church life have a much better understanding of the importance of Church law and, in due time, there will be more and better-trained canonists available to meet those needs.

Q: Do you think the revised norms will make a major difference in protecting children from abuse?

Peters: Yes, I think they will. The revised norms and, for that matter, the crisis that led up to them, have sent a clear message throughout the episcopate, not just of the United States but around the world, that canon law and the accumulated pastoral wisdom of the centuries that it contains cannot be ignored in our day without grave peril.

I think the greatest strength of the revised norms is precisely their bold reiteration of our system of canon law, in developing a more workable definition of clerical sexual misconduct than came out of Dallas, by pinpointing the diocesan bishop's immediate responsibility to conduct meaningful investigations with the assistance of experts and demanding the objectively fair application of canonical criminal procedure, and by imposing serious consequences for clerical sexual misconduct.

Q: And yet, the norms have come under criticism from media and victims' groups largely because of their explicit relation to the Code of Canon Law. How would you explain the value of canon law to a skeptical, secular audience?

Peters: Well, first I would candidly acknowledge that these are indeed very difficult days to convince a skeptic that canon law can respond adequately to their needs.

But, depending on the group, I might point out, for example, that the Church's legal system is the oldest continuously functioning one in the Western world, and that it has served the Church as she faced crisis after crisis, some of them coming from the outside, some from the inside, but always as one of the chief means by which the Holy Spirit has helped the Church meet the immediate challenge.

I would have to be clear, of course, that no legal system can succeed if it is not applied. And that, I am afraid, is in large part what happened with regard to this crisis.

Q: What were the main deficiencies of the original norms approved last June in regard to sex-abuse allegations?

Peters: The main deficiencies are precisely the ones that the Vatican and the special U.S. team of bishops remedied, namely, the almost complete neglect of the procedures long-established, but too seldom followed, in canon law to deal with delictual behavior among Catholics, and the novel attempt to set up a parallel system of investigation and adjudication that was cut off from the diocesan bishop's proper authority over the discipline of clergy. All of those problematic aspects have been removed from or remedied in the revised norms.

Q: As a canon lawyer yourself, are there elements in the revised norms you see that still have not been addressed completely?

Peters: I think there are some. For example, the revised norms speak of granting canonical counsel to accused priests but make no mention of accused deacons. Actually, though, Canon 1481 already requires that defendants in all criminal cases have canonical counsel, so I think the norms are oddly phrased here.

Also, and this is going to require some careful thinking, there is no clear description of the "ecclesiastical ministry" from which convicted clerics are to be removed. But the question remains as to whether there are any ecclesiastical positions that could be held by such clerics, if such positions offered no opportunity for contact with minors.

Or again, neither the original proposed norms nor the revised norms offered any concrete ways to follow up on their own call to restore the good name of those wrongfully accused, and surely there are some clerics wrongfully accused who will labor for years under the cloud of those unjust accusations. Perhaps this is beyond the ability of the norms to address, though I would suggest that, here again, canon law already takes a pretty dim view of false denunciations by having Canons 1390 and 1391 on the books.

Q: Since canon law is not, as some think, an inherently secretive process, what is its public component?

Peters: Well, first, the very laws under which the Church operates are available for all to see. The Code of Canon Law is widely available in almost every modern language now. And one doesn't have to be a canon lawyer to understand that according to canon law certain behavior is a crime, and that certain specific Church officers have responsibility to investigate these accusations, and that if they are proven, certain severe penalties can be imposed.

By the way, while it is true that canonical trials have never had the same "public" character that we are used to having, at least theoretically, in the common law arena, Canon 1470 of 1983 Code does allow diocesan bishops to make allowance for certain persons who are not parties to the case to attend certain trials.

Q: Does canon law in any way preclude civil law responsibility -- or civil law penalties?

Peters: Not at all. The two legal systems operate independently of each other, if at times cooperatively.

Canon 22 states the Church's willingness to work within whatever civil legal system in which she finds herself, subject only to her prior obligations to uphold divine and canon law. Because there is nothing contrary to divine or canon law in the state's prosecution of a member of the clergy for child sexual abuse, the Church can cooperate in those actions.

At the same time, however, the Church must be on guard, lest state officials use this crisis as a pretext to pursue an anti-Catholic agenda.

Q: From a legal point of view, are the scandals damaging Church relations with civil authorities?

Peters: Well, my sense is that state officials know that Catholic bishops regard this kind of criminal activity as deplorable, but what we've lost is the "benefit of the doubt" among those officials that we will deal with the problem swiftly and competently ourselves, especially proactively by way of prevention, but also by way of effective punishment of offenders and restitution to victims within our own system.

That kind of trust, once lost, will take a long time to regain. But I am confident it will be done in time.

Q: Could this reflect on freedom-of-religion issues?

Peters: There are certainly some in the state who would gladly seize on any occasion to curb our liberties, and this crisis does seem to offer some pretext for interfering in ecclesiastical administration.

But if we are forthright about our repentance for the sins of our brothers and the neglect of too many of our bishops -- and here I think Bishop Wilton Gregory's speech last June in Dallas was a superb articulation of this repentance -- then we will all be in a much better position to defend our rights against possible opportunistic encroachments by the state.