Canon Law Society Probes Issues of Justice, Due Process at Annual Convention. (Nation)

By Gabriel, Margaret | National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002 | Go to article overview

Canon Law Society Probes Issues of Justice, Due Process at Annual Convention. (Nation)


Gabriel, Margaret, National Catholic Reporter


In the aftermath of the clergy sex abuse scandals and the U.S. bishops' Dallas response, a number of Catholic organizations are finding their agendas shaped by the events of the day. Perhaps none has been called on to grapple with the ramifications of priests' removal, spelled out in the bishops' norms and charter, more than the Canon Law Society of America.

The 1,500-member society, which includes both male and female canon lawyers, held its annual convention in Cincinnati Oct. 7-10. A major focus of the convention was a closed-to-the-press "Presidential Hearing on Sexual Misconduct." The hearing was open only to members of the association in order to avoid "distraction," according to Fr. Patrick Lagges, the society's press officer and a member of its board of governors. Lagges said the hearing, also described as a listening session, was requested by members so the society might determine how best to respond to the crisis of sexual abuse by clergy and church personnel.

The society's president, Fr. Kevin E. McKenna, told NCR, "There are a lot of possibilities for education about the discipline and tradition of law in the church. In the long run, that can help to resolve the crisis."

Members of the canon law society reviewed both of the documents issued in June by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops--the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" and the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests, Deacons or Other Church Personnel." But the society's definitive response--canonists generally see considerable conflict between the norms and rights and procedures outlined in canon law--is on hold until members learn the Vatican's ruling. (At NCR press time Oct. 17, it was expected to be announced in the next few days.)

In the meantime, "what we can do best as a society is maintain our commitment to educating people concerning rights and what processes are already in place," said Fr. Lawrence O'Keefe, the society's vice president

Due process and confidentiality are two areas of concern, O'Keefe said, as well as the idea that "zero tolerance" could violate a person's right to due process. "We use a lot of words, but what does `zero tolerance' mean? What are the implications?"

McKenna emphasized that the current concern is the implementation of the present law, "and to make sure that we're all on the same page and that all rights are preserved."

The difference between canon law, based in Roman law, and civil law with its basis in English common law, is one of the points of education, said Franciscan Fr. Arthur Espelage, the society's executive coordinator.

"The goal of civil law is justice; the goal of canon law is truth," Espelage said. "Sometimes the two overlap completely, but they may not."

In discussing canonical proof, imputability--a term used by canonists in discussing culpability--plays a much greater role than in civil law, Espelage said. "If you had a person in a position of honor and trust, it would increase imputability. A disorder like manic-depression would lessen imputability. Canonical justice seeks moral certitude, which is difficult to define but at times is more rigorous than reasonable doubt. It reflects concern for truth rather than justice; it goes the extra mile.

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