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What is a "defrocked" priest?

Over the last few years, the phrase "defrocked priest" has appeared in news reports about clergy removed from ministry for sexual abuse. Because it is a popular rather than canonical term, its meaning is vague. It can be used incorrectly, for example, in reference to a priest who is only on a temporary leave of absence.

What it most accurately refers to is a priest who has been laicized. Laicization is the process of a priest losing the sacramental faculties of priesthood. In the past, this was referred to as a "degradation of state"--from clerical to lay--but because of the negative connotation, the language was revised. Once laicized, he is not allowed to exercise any of the sacramental functions of a priest, such as preside at Eucharist or hear Confession. He may not dress as a cleric (hence the term defrock) or present himself publicly as a priest. Technically a laicized priest is not supposed to perform any kind of public ministry in his parish, such as lector or Eucharistic minister, though local practice varies. He also loses the financial support of his diocese or order.

A priest can be laicized by his request or by penalty; the term defrock is usually used in the latter case. When a priest chooses to leave ministry of his own accord--to get married, for example--he requests the process of laicization be started by his bishop, who then forwards the request to the Vatican. Only the Holy See can laicize a priest.

According to the U.S. bishops' norms on sexual abuse, when a credible allegation of sex abuse is made against a priest, he is placed on leave while an investigation takes place. If determined guilty, he "will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state [laicization], if the case so warrants."

That said, except in rare cases, a priest is always a priest. The sacrament of Holy Orders, validly conferred, is permanent and indelible. The ordained can never be "unordained." The only cause for declaring the sacrament void is the determination that the sacrament was never valid--that on the day the man was ordained, there was some impediment to the sacrament, usually related to the man's intentions, such as being forced to be ordained or presenting himself under false identity.

In general, though, this does not apply to priests who commit sexual abuse. Even a notorious pedophile, such as the late John Geoghan of Boston, was still a priest. Thus sacraments conferred by a laicized priest are valid but not licit. In other words, absolution given by a laicized priest is still truly absolution, although the person who administered it was breaking the rules.

glad you asked Got a question? gya@uscatholic.org

TARA K. DIX, a freelance writer in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:glad you asked
Author:Dix, Tara K.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:465
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