As Ronald Reagan once famously said, “There you go again”. The New York Times published a story the other day about a sex abuse scandal in the Church, and it was — unsurprisingly — filled with errors and omissions.
The facts in the story are fairly simple and uncontested — and horrendous. It involved the case of a serial sex abuser, a priest who abused as many as two hundred deaf children from the 1950’s through 1974 of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Complaints were repeatedly raised about the priest’s misconduct, but he was never disciplined or removed. In the mid-seventies the complaints were referred to the civil authorities, but he was not prosecuted. The Archdiocese did remove him from ministry temporarily at that time, but he was later returned to work in the Diocese of Superior, where he served until the early 1990’s. To put it mildly, the case was very, very badly handled by the Church, and many children suffered terribly as a result.
In the mid-1990’s, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee decided to take action against the priest, in order to provide some justice to the victims in the deaf community, and in response to threats of civil legal action. The Archdiocese petitioned the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“CDF”) for instructions on how to proceed, and the CDF directed them to begin a canonical trial of the priest. However, after a personal appeal by the priest, who was ill and near death, the CDF directed the trial to be terminated, and the priest died soon thereafter.
The Times, of course, portrayed this as a failure by the CDF to “defrock” the priest, and accused it of “inaction”. What a coincidence, of course, that the head of the CDF at the time was our current Holy Father, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger.
That may all seem straight-forward, but there’s a major problem with how the Times reported it.
This story involves an arcane and specialized subject — Canon Law in general, its penal provisions in particular, and the differing jurisdictions of dioceses, dicasteries and tribunals. When a journalist is doing such a story in virtually any other area, they routinely consult an expert in that arcane and specialized field. Yet in this article, we see that the reporter merely consulted a “Vatican spokesman”, reported second-hand an interview from an Italian newspaper, and quoted no canon lawyers. In fact, there is virtually no discussion of the Canon Law at all in the story. How do you write about a legal proceeding, without presenting or even understanding the proper legal framework and the applicable laws?
If the Times had done their job and spoken to a canon lawyer, they would have seen that there were some fundamental questions that needed to be answered, in order to present the full story:
- What could the CDF have done about such a case in 1996-97? At that time, under the Canon Law, the CDF did not have direct jurisdiction over the principal offenses committed by the priest, but only had jurisdiction over the crime of solicitation in the confessional. In fact, if you read the documents attached to the Times’ story, that’s all that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was writing to them about — not all the offenses, but just that one. And, the CDF acted on that jurisdiction, by directing the Archdiocese to commence a canonical trial on the only offense over which they had jurisdiction. How is that “inaction”?
- Could the CDF have done anything else about that case? Under the Canon Law, the CDF had the authority to waive the statute of limitations for the offense involving the confessional, but had no authority to waive it for any other offense. Again, if you read the documents attached to the Times’ story, it is crystal clear that this is precisely what the CDF did — it exercised its authority to permit the otherwise time-barred case to go forward. This extraordinary act — which no court in the United States is authorized to do — was not even mentioned in the Times’ story. And again, how is that “inaction”?
- Could the CDF have done anything else about the other crimes committed by the priest? Under the Canon Law at the time, the CDF did not have jurisdiction over those other crimes, and all of those offenses were beyond the statute of limitations, which the CDF could not waive. To find fault with the CDF for failing to have done anything outside their jurisdiction and authority, on offenses that were beyond the statute of limitations, would be like criticizing the Department of Agriculture for doing nothing in 2010 to prosecute a bank robbery from 1950 — it’s just legal nonsense.
- Could the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have done anything about the other offenses? Unfortunately, by the 1990’s there was nothing they could have done either. All the offenses were beyond the statute of limitations and nobody had the authority to waive it.
These questions were never asked by the Times, and as a result, the story is unfair and misleading. The story accuses the Holy See of “inaction”, as if there was some fault in what the CDF did, when in fact they did everything they could have done within their authority as it existed at the time. And the Holy Father gets no credit at all for making sure that the laws were changed in 2001 to give the CDF greatly expanded powers to adjudicate these cases, including the exclusive jurisdiction to try cases involving clerics and the power to waive the statute of limitations — authority that he used with great diligence.
Don’t get me wrong here. The crimes committed by this priest cry out to heaven for justice. But you cannot just dispose of the rules in order to effect our idea of justice. That’s the hallmark of arbitrary, oppressive regimes, not societies that respect the rule of law.
How are we to explain this story? Was it just unprofessional reporting? Or, as I suspect, is it yet another instance of the Times’ inveterate bias against the Catholic Church?
Update 1 — For an excellent step-by-step analysis of the actual evidence in this case, see this article by Jimmy Akin at the National Catholic Register website. The Times should reprint his article, as a lesson on how to read and interpret Church documents relating to Canon Law.
Update 2 — The priest who handled the canonical trial of this priest has written a response to the Times. His most important comment — that no reporter has ever even contacted him to ask for his side of the story. “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, indeed.