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Spotlight Report

Specialists say changes in canon law may follow

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 10/19/2002

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 The conflicts
A look at where canon law and the Dallas policy proposal differ

Exchange of letters between the Vatican and the US bishops

Long before yesterday's cautious critique by the Vatican of the sex abuse policy approved by American bishops in June, canon law experts warned that the bishops' zero-tolerance policy against abusers was on a collision course with church law.

But yesterday, church law specialists had an optimistic new message: There is a way to avert the collision. And the solution may involve changes to canon law itself, not just to the Dallas policy.

As a commission of Vatican officials and US bishops begins the complex process of reconciling aspects of the bishops' policy with universal church law - commonly misunderstood as being a monolithic and unchanging body of precepts - canon law could be revised in the process, several specialists said.

''The general perception is that everything in the church is inflexible, that we're this changeless society that just sits there like Jabba the Hut,'' said the Rev. Patrick R. Lagges, a judicial vicar for the Chicago Archdiocese. ''But church law is in constant evolution, based upon the issues it needs to deal with.''

Indeed, the current code of canon law was issued in 1983 after undergoing a massive revision spurred by shifts in church theology that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. More recently, in 1994, the Vatican expanded canon law's statute of limitations in sexual misconduct cases from five to 10 years and raised the age of majority - the age of sexual consent - from 16 to 18.

One possibility now is that the church's statute of limitations, which, like similar provisions in civil law, says that crimes committed before a certain time are too old to be punished, could be changed again. That would be one way to address concerns about the Dallas policy, that even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor, no matter how long ago, will result in a priest being permanently removed from ministry.

''The whole question of the statute of limitations will probably be looked at to decide whether the present statute is sufficient, or whether it has to be shortened or lengthened,'' said the Rev. Kevin E. McKenna, immediate past president of the Canon Law Society of America. Changes to canon law must be approved by the pope.

Likewise, McKenna said, the canon law process for removing abusive priests from ministry - a process he called ''quite cumbersome'' - could be streamlined so bishops could more easily punish abusers. That could help reconcile the actions of many bishops who have removed accused priests from ministry under the canon law principle that such action can be taken only after a judicial trial or by the Vatican.

Other conflicts could be resolved simply by applying canon law principles differently.

Consider the principle that guarantees confidentiality to priests accused of sexual misconduct. Canonists say that rule is difficult to reconcile with the bishops' pledge of transparency and openness when dealing with sex abuse, and with actions by dioceses nationwide to publicize the names of accused priests.

''The public has a right to understand the process we use, so that needs to be transparent,'' said Monsignor Frederick C. Easton, a judicial vicar for the Indianapolis Archdiocese. ''But just like a private company wouldn't reveal the details of why somebody was fired, it's similar for the church.'' So while church officials might make public their process for dealing with allegations, he said, they might refrain from publicizing details about individual allegations.

''I suspect we'll have to do both - look at the law we presently have for the universal church, and then make sure that it's practiced and followed, so we're all on same page and all know what the law is,'' said McKenna.

Existing canon law, he added, ''didn't necessarily envision the scope of the [sex abuse] problem as it became so apparent in the last few years.''

Complicating the issue is that while canon law outlines general legal principles that are applied on a case-by-case basis, it is not, like American civil law, built on court decisions that can set precedents - unless they are overturned. ''The norms in Dallas gave bishops what they needed at the time to be able to make sure that no children or young people were at risk,'' said Lagges. ''Now the Vatican is saying, `OK, that's a good start, but we need to refine this a little bit more in order to reconcile it with the universal law of the church.''

Commission members, who have yet to be named, ''have their work cut out for them, but the Holy See and bishops believe they're basically on the same page,'' added Easton. ''It's now a question of adjusting the means to the end for the sake of as little ambiguity as possible, because ambiguity in the law is abhorrent. They're trying to achieve clarity of law.''

Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe Staff contributed to this story.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page B6 of the Boston Globe on 10/19/2002.
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