On this blog, both I and most of our commentators have agreed that “defrocking” – or (more technically) “laicisation” – is not necessarily the best way to deal with a clerical abuser. Now, according to this report in Zenit, exactly this has been said by Father John Beal of the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, a canon lawyer addressing a one-day seminar May 25 on canon law and sexual abuse in an address on “Crime and Punishment in the Catholic Church: An Overview of Possibilities and Problems.”
Zenit reports that Fr Beal told the seminar participants that “in the case of priest sexual abusers, perhaps the most serious canonical punishment is not always the best one” and
cautioned that turning a priest-sexual predator loose in society by separating him from the clerical state might solve the internal problem for the Church, but could serve to worsen the issue as a whole, particularly when the chance of a successful civil trial is minimal.
This comment, about the limits of the effectiveness of canonical censure in achieving the three aims of ecclesiastical sanctions (“repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender”) is particularly interesting:
Father Beal proposed that censures are unlikely to be effective punishments for priest abusers.
He explained: “Since they can only be imposed after a warning, there must be evidence of an incident of abuse or at least suspicion that a particular cleric is prone to such abuse before a censure can even be threatened. Sad experience of the recent past suggests that even the sternest warnings and threats are unlikely to be effective in deterring abusive clerics from repeating their offenses. Even when a censure has been imposed, it must be remitted once the offender evidences repentance — and, as many bishops have learned to their chagrin, sexually abusive clergy can make very convincing displays of repentance when they are confronted with evidence of their offenses.”
He goes through all the other options, including the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. He says:
Balancing the aims of restoring justice, removing scandal and reforming the offender is not an easy task. Efforts to achieve a just balance among these ends will open Church authorities to criticism from all sides just as efforts to find a balance in the secular arena has resulted in sharp criticism of secular judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court. But, in an imperfect world, one does what one can. And if we do what we can, perhaps we shall achieve in time that object all sublime of letting the punishment fit the crime.
For what it is worth, I think most of us on this blog will also agree that there is wisdom in what Fr Beal said in the conclusion to his address:
When searching for the just balance of the aims of canonical penal law, the most important consideration for decision-makers in the Church is not how best to punish the offender for past crimes but how best to protect the vulnerable from future abuse.