Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

At the turn of the twentieth century, the modernist crisis roiled the entire Catholic Church. Modernism’s opponents claimed that exegesis and theology had become infected with rationalism, thereby undermining the historical truth of the Bible and the Christian faith. The remedy for this disease, they believed, was a widespread network of anonymous informants—called the Sodalitium Pianum or La Sapinière—who would denounce professors and others suspected of the modernist heresy. The accused priests would be summarily removed from their positions, with little or no chance of defense. 

While modernism was a real theological problem the Church needed to address, this overwrought response led to human rights abuses that haunted Catholicism for a long time. The modernist controversy comes to mind when thinking about the suppression of priests’ rights that has accompanied today's sex abuse crisis. 

Recently, four veteran Catholic priests I know were suspended from priestly ministry. Each was suspended on the basis of one accusation from decades ago. They were told they cannot celebrate Mass or administer the sacraments publicly, cannot present themselves as priests, cannot wear a clerical collar, and must relinquish their “suitability for ministry” identification cards. I spoke with one man who told me it was a humiliating, Kafkaesque experience to be treated this way after decades of sterling service as a pastor and in other important diocesan positions. These priests are now part of the human wreckage left in the wake of the 2002 Dallas Charter and its norms for dealing with accusations of priestly abuse. 

The American bishops have been exemplary in their concern for the victims of abuse. They have rightly pledged that never again must such horrible crimes and heinous actions occur in the Church. They have rightly deplored child abuse and taken firm steps to prevent it in the future. And they have rightly made restitution to the victims of such abuse. All praiseworthy actions. But they have adopted a false either/or proposition: Protect possible victims or protect the rights of priests. In accepting this fateful dichotomy, they have failed to exercise thoughtful leadership—and have become estranged from their own priests in the process. 

As with those accused of modernism, no defense is possible for accused priests. Once a civil suit has been filed, the policy in certain dioceses is to remove priests from ministry—even if the charges are decades old and lack any evidence. Cases are not even submitted to a review board prior to suspension. The filing of a civil suit is enough for a priest to lose his ministry and have his reputation as a man and a priest reduced to tatters. As Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and a keen analyst of the abuse crisis, has written, “The average detainee in Guantanamo Bay has more rights than the average accused priest in America does today.” The bishops and their chancery advisers ought to be deeply troubled by this. 

Cardinal Avery Dulles clearly identified the problem: Many bishops, having been criticized in the past, do not now want to make any judgments. It is simpler for them merely to state that suspension from ministry is the policy when a suit is filed, no matter how unsupported an accusation may be. Bishops likely think that the laity want them to clean up the mess, no matter the price to be paid. But that is a disastrous policy. 

Many American bishops, panicked and distraught over the abuse crisis—and by the claim that they exercised insufficient oversight—became captive to liability attorneys, risk managers, and PR flacks. A few years ago I was in the presence of a bishop who stated that the hierarchy had once listened to psychologists who counseled that abusers could be reformed and returned to ministry. Bishops later realized that this was a mistake. A priest in the audience responded, “Isn’t it likely that in twenty years the bishops will recognize that they were mistakenly held hostage by liability lawyers?” Silence ensued. 

These policies are crippling the morale of Catholic priests and undermining the theology of Holy Orders. For a long time now, priests have told me that they no longer encourage men to enter the seminary. By treating priests as guilty from the moment of accusation, the Church is failing to recognize the inviolable dignity of the human person—a dignity rooted in natural law as well as in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This month, a priest told me he “actively discourages” anyone interested in the priesthood from entering seminary. His advice: “Find another way to follow Jesus Christ.” For no man should live in such precarious circumstances, under the sword of Damocles. Perhaps this partly explains why many dioceses have dwindling numbers in their seminaries and are ordaining so few. It is far too easy to blame “secularized American culture” for this scandalous collapse. Bishops themselves have contributed to the debacle. 

And what of the claims of sacred Scripture? Clearly, there were problems in the priesthood right from the foundation of the Church. St. Paul writes to Timothy, “Do not accept an accusation against a presbyter unless it is supported by two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). And the Book of Daniel states, “Are you such fools, O sons of Israel, to condemn a child of Israel without examination and without clear evidence?” (Dan. 13:48) These just and sage biblical directives should not be rendered impotent today. 

There also seem to be different rules for certain bishops. The former bishop of Brooklyn and the present bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire, have both been accused of abuse. Both men loudly proclaimed their innocence and refused to step down while fighting the accusations. But if this option is not also extended to priests—especially for accusations that are decades old and without evidence—then a repugnant double standard emerges. And if the claim is made, as it always is, that an accused priest cannot be left in ministry since he could harm God’s people, how much more is that the case with a powerful bishop? Neither logic nor theology is the governing principle in these matters.

All of this has unfortunately led to the “adversarial relationship” between bishops and priests wisely predicted by Cardinal Dulles two decades ago, a relationship that is perilous for the life and mission of the Catholic Church. For if bishops have no credibility with their own priests, how can they exercise authority? 

Many bishops will say that they had no choice but to be draconian since they were responding to a terrible crisis. But they would do well to listen to the wise words of Sen. Susan Collins in 2018, during the pitched battle over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. 

Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence and fairness do bear on my thinking and I cannot abandon them. In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.

How true her words. And it is precisely this lack of fairness toward priests that constitutes the error that has been made and that must be rectified. 

Other models are available besides the well-intentioned but misguided one that the U.S. episcopacy endorses. In some countries, accused priests, especially those facing decades-old accusations without confirming evidence, are relegated to the equivalent of “desk duty.” They are prohibited from working with children but not stripped of their right to present themselves as priests—nor barred from offering Mass and administering the sacraments in certain circumstances. Such priests can work in diocesan offices—for example, on catechetical material or marriage tribunal issues. Cardinal Dulles strongly advised this kind of work years ago. After all, aren’t proportionate penalties the essence of intelligent systems of justice? 

We now look back on attempts to combat modernism—such as La Sapinière, with its ruthless denunciations and dismissals—as failing to uphold basic human dignity and fundamental rights. Are American bishops repeating the same mistake today?

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino, STD, is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and author, most recently, of The Unchanging Truth of God?: Crucial Philosophical Issues for Theology.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by The Diocese of East Anglia via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles