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Canon Law Convention: London 2003.

The 38th Annual Convention of the Canadian Canon Law Society took place Oct. 20-23, 2003. Many canonists from across the country gathered in London, Ontario, to consider results 20 years after the launching of the new Code of Canon Law.

Father Francis Morrisey, Emeritus Professor at St. Paul University, Ottawa, gave the opening address. He stressed that the Code was not written to meet the (unanticipated) crisis of sexual abuse in the Church. That crisis put the Code under stress. He stated that the Dallas Norms of April 2002 decided upon by the American bishops are an example of bad law because they overlooked the "rights of persons." His chief concern with those Norms with a zero tolerance clause for offending priests, and other documents dealing with the sins of homosexuals, seemed to be that they do hot respect the difference between the internal and external fora. This requires some explanation.

The internal forum refers to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the seal of the Confessional. To quote canon 960: "Individual and integral confession and absolution constitute the sole ordinary means by which a member of the faithful who is conscious of a grave sin is reconciled with God and with the Church." And we are reminded by canon 983 [section] 1 that "The sacramental seal is inviolable. ... It is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion."

The commentary on this canon stresses that the source of the obligation to secrecy is the Sacrament itself; and every person has a right to his own privacy, protected by a serious penalty. Canon 1388 [section] 1 states: "A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latte sententiae (automatic) excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See." The Commentary goes on: "The sacramental seal does not exist ... if an individual tells a priest outside confession, saying this is under the seal or under confessional secrecy. In such a case it is not, in fact, a confession." And there's the rub.

How much of what a priest confides to his bishop or spiritual director can be legitimately repeated in a court of law (the external forum)? Bishop John Sherlock, speaking on the topic From Pain to Hope." One Bishop's Experience, commented that he made it a point not to hear his priests' confessions.

Father Morrisey gave what he believed to be other examples of mixing internal/external fora: bishops who advise the faithful that belonging to the Masonic order is a grave sin, or telling politicians that if they support abortion or same-sex unions they are guilty, and in danger of hellfire. (Editor: Surely, bishops have the right and duty to admonish sinners; they are merely fulfilling their role as shepherds protecting the sheep.)

Bishop John Sherlock

Bishop Sherlock spoke of meeting with the victims of pedophilia. At first, he admitted, he had been very naive and thought that all incidents were isolated cases. Also, he was not aware that a priest could be dismissed. As scripture says, "You are a priest forever.... " As a result, he did tend to shield his priests. He now feels that protecting the young is a priority.

Bishop Sherlock quoted from an article in the Catalyst, October 2003, by Father Stephen Rossetti, Director of St. Luke's Institute in Washington, which states that "91% of cases of priestly sexual abuse involve male on male sex.... Does this mean that all gay priests are molesters? Of course not, but it does mean that most of the molesters are gay."

Father Rossetti believes that theirs is a particular kind of homosexuality, which one might call regressed or stunted. These homosexual men are emotionally stuck in adolescence. " (S. Rossetti, America, April 22, 2002, p. 11). Bishop Sherlock feels that the Church should screen out regressed homosexuals before ordination. But neither he nor the other speakers who tended to support Father Rossetti's thesis tried to explain how a homosexual was "stunted" if he attacked a 12-year-old, or example, but not if he seduced a 16-year-old. And most of the cases in Canada and in the States involve older teenagers.


The Dallas Norms--bad Church law? Let us recall that these norms were drafted to protect minors and that the supreme law of the Church remains the salvation of souls (c. 1752).

Perhaps Father Morissey would prefer that the bishop or a pastor from the pulpit advise the offender that, in disagreeing with the Holy Father and Church teaching, he has placed himself in schism (cc 751 and 752). He remains a Catholic, but a Catholic not in good standing. Or to use a comment by Father Orsy, he has extracted himself from the communio; i.e., he has excommunicated himself.

If Father Morrisey is suggesting that homosexuality is medically or genetically determined, there is no scientific basis for this. In fact, this unnatural lifestyle is associated with lethal medical consequences: venereal disease (AIDS for which treatment merely delays the inevitable), malignancy (e.g. Kaposi's sarcoma), psychiatric problems, and a high suicide rate. It may not be recommended, therefore, as an acceptable lifestyle. And it certainly should not be legalized.

With regard to rights of persons, there is an area of legitimate concern when a possibly innocent priest is named in a class-action suit. In this respect the attitude of the Courts vis-a-vis the Church is very different from their attitude towards lawyers, who are allowed to protect the confidences of their clients. Some dioceses maintain very good records; and, in spite of a statute of limitations of 20 years in the U.S., some of them have been forced to hand over all records, even those dating back 60 years, without the consent of the accused. Further, according to Father Morissey, if a priest is dismissed and files a recourse, it may take Rome three to five years to hand down a decision. In the meantime, he remains in limbo.

In considering the rights of the accused, Father Morrisey did not deal with the issue of a public sin (e.g., a politician giving scandal, and causing confusion among the faithful). In publicly offending and injuring the little ones in the Church, the offender has forfeited certain rights. His crime should be atoned for publicly to demonstrate to the faithful that the Church is protecting the defenceless. This is how we justify jailing felons: we are protecting the innocent.

The public penance undertaken by the offender--e.g., dismissal can be taken into consideration in the internal forum. There really is no conflict. And if, in spite of the evidence, the accused is innocent in a particular case, he might remember the times that he has offended his Creator, and atone for these. After all, Christ was innocent, and died between two thieves. Further, the publicity associated with these crimes is as nothing when compared with the open forum at the general judgement, for which he may consider this a dress rehearsal.

As one canonist put it later: "Recent-day litigation and scandals are like the unpaid bills of the Church. If we can be saved from hell by this suffering, we should be on our knees thanking God for it."

Dr. Jean Ferrari of Ottawa is both a medical doctor and a student of cannon law.
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Author:Ferrari, Jean
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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