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Recently, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made significant changes to the way universities are to handle complaints of sexual assault. DeVos made clear that in no way will such assaults be tolerated, for “one rape is one too many.” But she also accented the rights of the accused, insisting that “one person denied due process is one too many.”

DeVos’s policy changes make sense: Both the accused and the accuser must enjoy clearly defined rights—rights that must be equitably balanced so that the truth of an accusation may be determined and justice served. This procedure has been at the heart of American jurisprudence for centuries.

I invoke DeVos’s astute and courageous changes because similar adjustments are necessary in the Charter for the Protection of Young People (commonly called the Dallas Charter) enacted by the American bishops in 2002 in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The Charter has caused serious problems—of theology, justice, and morale—which continue to bedevil and undermine the Catholic priesthood in the United States.

Under the Dallas Charter, when an accusation of priestly abuse is made, the priest is immediately suspended from public ministry, regardless of the accusation’s merit. Some will reply that the claim of “immediate suspension” is inaccurate; a review board must first determine an accusation’s “credibility.” But author after author, from Avery Cardinal Dulles (in First Things and America) to David Pierre (in Catholic Priests Falsely Accused), has shown that “credibility” is a laughably low standard. Evidence is barely required. Indeed, almost every accusation is deemed “credible” unless the accused can prove that thirty years ago (and most accusations are from decades long past) he was on a different continent when the alleged abuse occurred. In other words, “credible” has come to mean “not entirely impossible.” With such a standard, accused priests are placed in an untenable situation.

DeVos has also urged universities, when determining the guilt of the accused, to move from the standard of “preponderance of evidence” to one of “clear and convincing evidence.” She has employed strong language: “Washington [in the prior administration] dictated that schools must use the lowest standard of proof . . . . It’s no wonder that so many call these proceedings ‘kangaroo courts.’” Sadly, Catholic priests are suspended from their priestly ministry—in effect, treated as guilty—on the basis of neither of these judicial standards, but on the basis of the weakest possible criterion, mere “credibility.” DeVos would be appalled, as should we all.

Some have argued that this low standard is reasonable, since the question is not one of sending priests to jail, but only of barring them from ministry. But, as Cardinal Dulles argued, to bar a priest from publicly celebrating the Mass and administering the sacraments is to rob him of his sacred calling, his lifelong identity, his good reputation, and his sole means of support—effectively a death penalty. Is that not reason enough to think twice about the “credibility” standard?

The immediate suspension of accused priests has given rise to a second problem: While the priest remains suspended, the investigation into his case drags on, often for years. Why do cases proceed so slowly? Because with decades-old accusations, most often no evidence can come forward, to prove either the priest’s innocence or his guilt. The easy (but unconscionable) solution has been to leave the priest in limbo, hoping he will just go away. Years pass, and accused priests are greeted only with silence. They receive little information about the material charges, and even less about the timeline for the procedure. Obscurity, rather than transparency, reigns.

The conclusion is inescapable: The Dallas Charter and its norms are badly in need of correction. Cardinal Dulles’s prediction in 2002, that the Charter would result in an “adversarial relationship” between bishops and priests, has come to pass. Many priests have lost confidence in bishops’ theological judgments, and even in their personal fortitude. This loss of trust can only do grave harm to the mission of the Catholic Church in the United States.

The American bishops have been too frightened to take reparative action—frightened of the media, frightened of advocacy groups, frightened of politicians, frightened that they will be accused of criminal negligence, frightened that the Holy See itself will consider them to have been insufficiently punitive. Of course, the majority of American bishops are hard-working men who care for the Church. And they are in a difficult spot, since many laymen, humiliated by the abuse scandal, have demanded strong episcopal action. If some priests suffer unjustly, well, that’s collateral damage in the necessary clean-up. No one would phrase it that way, of course. But by turning a blind eye to the problems attendant upon the Charter, even serious Catholics have unwittingly colluded in the injustice toward priests.

Bishops have other worries, as well. As American culture turns increasingly and hostilely secular, they are easy targets: high-profile representatives of an institution that, allegedly, exemplifies repression and intolerance. For this reason, some legislators still speak about removing statutes of limitations for civil suits against the Church. Such statutes have existed for centuries, precisely because memories fade, evidence degrades, and circumstances become clouded with time. Removing statutes of limitations is both unwise and unjust. But is there a person left in the United States who thinks that politicians care more about justice than about pandering for the next election?

Catholic priests don’t expect help from politicians. They do expect theological solidity and wise action from bishops. But in this matter, the bishops—despite their steadfast desire to restore the integrity of the Church—have been found wanting. Bishops will protest that they love priests, support priests, and so on. But these sentiments are regarded as obiter dicta by priests who know that they could be summarily suspended, and left with nothing but their shredded reputations, on the basis of barely “credible” accusations.

Peggy Noonan has written in the Wall Street Journal that the established political class is no longer trusted by Americans. This “protected class” lives in a bubble. It makes public policy but doesn’t have to live with it. The “unprotected class” does. Mutatis mutandis, these words apply to priests’ perception of bishops—who do not, let it be noted, fall under the strictures of their own Charter. The bishops have put priests in an impossible situation, by means of provisions that they do not apply to themselves.

I have been privileged to teach Catholic seminarians for thirty-five years. I wonder what effect the Dallas Charter and its norms, left unreformed, will have on the priesthood of Jesus Christ. After all, Vatican II wisely taught, “No difficulty of the priestly life is to be concealed from seminarians” (Optatam totius, no. 9). An intelligent candidate for the priesthood may well conclude that he could be treated unjustly—and decide that an already difficult way of life is a path best left untraveled.

Have the bishops forgotten what heavy sacrifices the priesthood entails? Those sacrifices are more easily borne with the knowledge that one is living a sacred vocation. Unfortunately, many priests have concluded that their ecclesiastical superiors now regard their “vocation” as little more than a job. The Dallas Charter eats away at the theological and ontological density of the priesthood itself, reducing it to a transitory, contractual position. Is the priesthood truly a sacred vocation, rooted in a unique divine call, marking one—like baptism itself—with an indelible character? Or does the Charter now whisper—and more than whisper—that such theology belongs to the discarded baggage of the past, as critics of the Catholic Church have long charged? This is a theological blunder of extraordinary proportions—yet the bishops seem oblivious to it.

When Secretary DeVos issued her policy changes, she was attacked from the usual quarters, with commentators claiming that she was “sweeping sexual assaults under the rug,” “protecting rapists,” and “attacking survivors.” If they act, the bishops will be subjected to the same kind of recriminatory language, and much worse besides. But despite the personal onslaught to which she has been subjected, DeVos has had the fortitude to pursue justice. Bishops should attend to her example.

To their credit, the American Catholic bishops, exercising their apostolic ministry, often boldly defend unpopular truths—about religious freedom, about the sanctity of life, and about the nature of marriage. But in 2002, the bishops—caught in the midst of a moral panic—were sold an a-theological bill of goods.

I appeal to the American bishops to act courageously by convening a board of theologians and canonists to review the provisions of the Dallas Charter, despite the criticism to which they will certainly be subjected. Bishops often remark that they “promised the Catholic people” they would be tough on abuse. But no promise, however well intentioned, can stand on a foundation of shabby theology. In convening this board, the bishops will begin a process that will, in time, ensure due process for accused priests, restore the confidence and trust of the clergy, and found procedures for the accused on the bedrock of Catholic theology and natural justice.

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino has been professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University since 1984.

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