I was astonished to read recently that the archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, is seeking to laicize all clergy who have been removed from ministry because of credible accusations of sex abuse. If the report is accurate, this move represents another grave blow to the Catholic priesthood, which is now tottering because of the draconian actions of American bishops wishing to atone for their past misprision of abuse.
Surely Archbishop Aymond recognizes the serious theological problems inherent in his proposal to laicize all credibly accused priests. Occasionally, a priest admits to having abused a minor. This kind of clear, unambiguous guilt represents a unique case in which laicization may, indeed, be justified. In most instances, however, “credibly accused” priests deny that they committed any wrongdoing. And usually these priests are accused of having abused someone years ago, so it is impossible to prove—or even to establish reasonably—that the alleged abuse actually occurred. This is precisely why civil prosecutors normally dismiss these cases; reliable and vital evidence becomes clouded and confused over time. Bishops formerly removed accused priests from ministry out of an abundance of caution. But now, a Catholic archbishop has seemingly proposed laicizing priests whose guilt has not been decisively established.
The archbishop may be motivated by economic interests. Priests who have been removed from ministry remain, canonically, the responsibility of their dioceses. Minimal but continuing sustenance must be provided for them. Priests who have been laicized, however, are regarded by the Church as laymen (though they remain priests due to the character indelebilis conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders). After laicization, dioceses are no longer responsible for these men financially or otherwise.
If this most recent proposal is enacted, the priesthood in the United States would suffer a severe jolt. Every priest already knows he can be removed from ministry on the basis of a mere phone call claiming that some incident occurred decades ago. Once a complaint is lodged, the relentless machinery kicks in: A diocesan review board (often nameless) first certifies that the accusation is “credible”—a vague designation meaning, essentially, that a crime “could conceivably have occurred.” From that point on, the priest’s life is a hellish descent: He is deprived of his ministry; he is stripped of his clerical garb; his name is publicly announced; his reputation lies in tatters; a subsistence wage is doled out to him; and he enters a process that takes not months, but years as the accusation is investigated. In most of these cases, someone claims that a priest committed abuse decades ago, meaning there is little chance that any evidence exists to prove either the priest’s guilt or innocence. The battered man is left in limbo for years, deprived of his priestly identity—with his bishop often hoping he will just walk away and cease to cause him further trouble or bad publicity.
Is this any way to treat men who have given their lives, body and soul, to the Church? Is this the way to foster vocations to the priesthood? Would any intelligent man commit himself to this way of life knowing that injustice, from the Church herself, may lurk around the corner? Would any family encourage priestly vocations given these possible consequences? Philip Lawler, a veteran commentator on Catholic life, recently wrote, “American Church leaders, who once ignored the rights of innocent children, now ignore the rights of accused priests.” The “laicization proposal” takes this a step further. Not only are priests denied a definitive presumption of innocence. Now, prior to any conclusive judgment of guilt, they are being asked to seek laicization or to risk forcible dismissal from the priesthood. This kind of action only accelerates the profound erosion of the sacrament of Holy Orders that began with the Dallas Charter in 2002. What conclusion can people draw except that the priesthood is a temporary job, like any other, and not a sacred vocation?
Furthermore, what are priests to make of the fact that the bishop of Brooklyn, New York, who has had two abuse accusations lodged against him, has not stepped down from his episcopal ministry? Will Archbishop Aymond petition American bishops, in solidarity with their priests, to seek laicization if they, too, are credibly accused?
The Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for bankruptcy earlier this year—so the bishop’s concern about finances is understandable. And no doubt his recent proposal was made with pastoral concern for the Catholic people in mind. Nevertheless, no matter the pressures a diocese may face—economic, reputational, or otherwise—the Church’s theology of the priesthood cannot be subverted or discarded. A bedrock principle of Catholic faith and theology is that priests are called to the altar by Jesus Christ, and are ordained priests of Jesus Christ forever. They are not priests merely until they become inconvenient or troublesome for the local bishop. And American bishops, no matter how beleaguered or besieged they may be, need to understand and ardently defend that truth.
Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University.
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