Corporal Punishment for Bad Priests

 

 

Back in the winter of 2004, when I was still a newly ordained priest, I asked my pastor if I could offer an “adult forum” on sexual abuse by priests.  It had been two years since the Boston Globe had investigated and exposed the abominable shamblings of the Archdiocesan authorities there.  As we recall, this managed to work practically everyone in the United States up into a state of righteous outrage over the fact that a priest could do such terrible things and basically get away with it, and then do it over and over again.  I, too, was moved with rage and disgust.

 

I tried to put myself in the place of an ecclesiastical authority who had learned that one of his charges had sexually abused a minor.  I came to a conclusion about what I would do, and I waited for someone to propose such a solution, but no one ever did.

 

I did not offer my proposal at the time.  I had ministered as a deacon and then as a priest through the heat of the national outrage, and with just about every journalist, bishop, and armchair ecclesiastical authority talking about nothing but sexual abuse by priests for all of 2002 and most of 2003, I figured I could just stick to announcing the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith.

 

But in the winter of 2004, the heated and widespread discussion of the subject had died down, so I resolved to ask the pastor if I could offer a “forum.”  The idea was to clarify facts, propose theological teaching about the Church (an institution both human and divine) and offer to address any questions.  My hope was to help the people “put things back together,” so to speak.

 

My pastor was brave enough to allow me to do this, and everything went fine.  The one unsolved argument was over the question of why a priest who had sexually abused a minor could not be made back into a layman, so that Holy Orders would not be besmirched by his continuing to be in them.  I tried to emphasize that a priest who abuses a minor should be and would be denied any further opportunity to minister as a priest, but that God Himself makes a man a priest by permanently marking his soul, and no human power can unmark him.

 

This was a pointless distinction for me to make (even though it is true), and it only made everyone mad.  I could sympathize.  It took me back to my original idea about what ought to be done when Church authority concludes that a priest is guilty of abusing a minor.

 

The fact is that when someone does something really bad, we are not satisfied unless there is retributive justice.  It is not enough to take steps to ensure that the offense is not repeated—though obviously that needs to be done.  When someone commits a terrible crime, the harmony of the world is disturbed, and only a fitting punishment can restore order.

 

The law of the state can and must punish a priest like any other sex offender with proportionate jail time.  But those of us who think of a priest as someone called to a higher standard than other men (it seems like just about everyone in America thinks this)—we long for a fitting punishment by the Church Herself, a punishment delivered over and above the boom that the state lowers.  Such a punishment is necessary in order to restore the order of justice within the human institution of the Church.

 

Ecclesiastical authority cannot erase the priesthood from a priest’s soul.  It wouldn’t serve the cause of severity in punishment even if it could:  God will certainly be more severe in condemning an impenitent wicked priest than he would a layman who had committed the same crimes.

 

So what should ecclesiastical authority do?  If I were a bishop or religious superior who judged after careful investigation that one of my priests had abused a minor, I hope and pray that I would be man enough to call the priest into my office and beat him up right then and there, before I turned him over to the police.

 

The beat down would involve a barrage of punches to the stomach, chest, and shoulders, raining pain down on the criminal, without breaking anything or hitting him in the head or below the belt.  What happened to Fr. Shanley—killed by another inmate after being incarcerated for sexual abuse of children—is wrong; I am not talking about a vigilante execution.  I am talking about the controlled corporal punishment of an adult.  (I am not opining about the corporal punishment of children; I will leave that to parents.)

 

I haven’t been in a fistfight since I was coming up on 14 and my brother was 12 and he beat me up because I mercilessly mocked the Washington Capitals for choking in the Stanley Cup Finals.  I am not exactly a bruiser.  But I am 6′ 3″ and broad-shouldered, and I do my pushups just about every day.  I am ready and willing to administer these beat-downs.  I would be glad to be called into to administer them if the bishop judged himself to be physically incompetent to do so.

 

The Code of Canon Law prohibits striking a cleric under penalty of excommunication, but I think that in this case another cleric could administer corporal punishment on a brother without violating the spirit of this law, just like the state can execute a criminal without violating the Fifth Commandment.  (I will come back to substantiate this assertion—I promise.)

 

The thing here is that I am not kidding.  If every bishop who received an allegation had investigated it, and if he had, finding a priest guilty, administered a beat-down before turning the priest over to the police—if this had happened, there would be no scandal, and there would have been a great deal fewer crimes of this kind committed by priests.

 

I am ready to come to the Pastoral Center to do what needs to be done, if necessary.  (Please God that it would never be necessary in our humble Archdiocese.)

12 thoughts on “Corporal Punishment for Bad Priests

  1. What about the victim(s)?

    Again a “man of the cloth” neglects us…

    Pray, pay and obey no more! And laity, stop donating money!

  2. I appreciate the thought here. I do not think, however, that a minor should be asked to administer corporal punishment, or even to witness it. I think it might only make things worse.

  3. You misunderstood me. I don’t think victims, as children or adults, should witness flogging.

    While I support administering corporal punishment to pedophile priests, I wonder what you suggest should become of the victims?

    I was hoping you would perhaps speak of what the victims need before (or even after) what should be done to criminal clergy.

    How about talking about responding to us pastorally with care and compassion and understanding? How about telling ’em not to deny our ‘allegations,’ minimize our experiences or ‘blame the victim’ to start with…?

    Gawd, do none of you get it?????

  4. Yes, Joan I do get it.

    I do not believe in corporal punishment for priests, but rather accountability – by both the priest and the church itself. Yes, a priest is human, but he is held by a higher standard because he is a servant of Our Lord, he has vowed to be that and we support him when we support the Church. When a priest betrays his vows by praying on an innocent victim, the Church has no right to disregard that betrayal by blaming the victim, that makes the Church as guilty as the priest who committed the act to begin with.

    The Church is breaking God’s law when they continue this in this way…they obviously disregard their own teachings, that only God will be there to judge us on our final day.
    I wish you peace Joan!

  5. I don’t think the focus of this particular article was “how do we respond to the victims”. I don’t think that there was any intention to ignore the victims and maybe that will be covered in another article.

    I saw the focus of this article as what the Church hierarchy should have and should do now in these cases (pray, there are not any). The bottom line is, in many cases, those who were responsible to oversee those who committed these sins did not take quick action to investigate, and in the cases where there was guilt, some failed terribly in their obedience and responsibility to the God, His Church and humankind when they did not deal with the issue at hand, at the time, with conviction, good judgment, and justice. If those in authority had done that, perhaps there would not have been a scandal like this — It is sort of like being a parent — deal with the issue head-on, with open eyes, firmly, and consistently, and with love, and the child’s behavior is impacted and AND THE BEHAVIOR OF HIS SIBLINGS (I.E. fellow priests is this case) ARE IMPACTED AS WELL.

    I’m not saying that there would not have been any cases of abuse and cases not reported. But reading Fr. White’s article should make us all happy to know that priests do care about this issue and have strong feelings about what they and other priests, bishops, etc. can and should do and are doing to move forward from here to prevent this type of terrible sin from occurring again — and from occurring under their watch. We ALL need to help each other, whether be our priests, family members, companions, to keep our eyes on Christ by our prayers, encouragement and our actions.

    May God give comfort and peace to all victims, forgiveness to all who have sinned against Him. And may the Good Lord have mercy on all of us, keep us close to His Word, and obedient to Him always.

    Regina

  6. You are a lot braver than I am. While I have discussed the issue, I would never in a million years want to moderate a forum on clergy sexual abuse. What could one expect from it but a great deal of anger and maybe igniting fuses to bombs that need not go off? I would not count myself enough of an expert to deal credibly with the concerns and questions that might arise. It could become an occasion for calumny and gossip. I would defer to someone like Fr. Stephen Rossetti, although I do have personal reservations about some of the things that are said to occur at St. Luke’s Institute and similar facilities charged with the care of problem priests. I would suspect that the archdiocese would also want to be consulted before any such an enterprise was undertaken. Speaking, again for myself, I am not sure I could appropriately contain my own rage and disgust toward the perpetrators or to those churchmen who protected them and enabled their mischief.

    Putting ourselves into the place of ecclesiastical authority is easier said than done. I am sure a great many scenarios ran through their heads: the question of salvaging a priest, the scandal of revelation, and the financial costs in liability, etc. Hopefully, among the many concerns was also the concern about victims and potential victims and their families. However, it seems that this critical part of the analysis was often lost in the mix. People were paid off to be silent but others were placed in danger. Money does not heal lives and souls. Silence sometimes just allows evil to hide and later reemerge. Here I might come to a parting of ways with some of the so-called experts. I do not believe that child abuse is simply an illness or psychiatric disorder of the priest. It is more than a stunted development. It is a serious moral evil. It is a sin of the highest order and a priest, above all men, should know this. Suicide is a grievous sin, but I would count it better for a man to throw himself in front of a speeding truck before molesting a child. I know this would usher angry responses, but even our Lord said that it would be better for a man to have a millstone tied around his neck and that he be thrown into the sea before he would lead one of the little ones astray. Priests are not supposed to hurt children and damage the faith of their charges! It is a contradiction to their very identity and the heart of the Gospel. That is why the scandal has been so terrible. Even non-Catholics took us for our word and priests were viewed by millions as the living embodiments of Christ. Now we are ranked among the greatest hypocrites. The damage from even one Judas priest is inestimable; however, when the scandals hit us, there was charge after charge after charge. It became a nightmare that did not seem to want to end. Making it worse, certain bishops dismissed their own responsibility, shifting it to the lower clergy or even to the people with the imposed penitential days. Even now the bishops are thinking about an annual Sexual Abuse Awareness Sunday. It is insane; there is no other word for it. People wanted to hear their high shepherds explain what happened and yes, even to say they were sorry. But words were carefully crafted by lawyers and admissions measured by the calculations of litigation.

    Generations of rewarding paper-pushers and chancery men with promotions added to the dilemma at hand; the Church was deathly afraid of scandal and those who were the best at problem-solving and pacifying situations got the long pointed hats. Many of them had never been pastors of a parish and they hated any type of confrontation. They were passive men. They protected the boys in the club. Any decent priest in the trenches could have told them that any man who molested a child should NEVER be trusted in a parish with children again! It did not take pontifical degrees or honors to figure this out and yet those in charge made matters worse. Even now, despite most cases of priestly child abuse being catalogued as pedophilia; the truth against this deception is that the rascals were mostly pederasts and homosexuals. The average priest in the trenches knows this as do the laity. But the experts and high churchmen have defined the problem differently. Why are we afraid to offend sodomites?

    I am glad you could have your forum with no ill effects. You are a better man than I am. As I said, I would not have the nerve. I wonder though, given that it was 2004, if the attendance was minus those who had since left Church practice over the scandals. Remember, you served at a parish where I was once an associate to a pastor who was convicted as a pedophile. The cases were thirty years old and the parishioners and I had trouble believing it. But he pled guilty and went to prison. It marked me and all who knew him in a permanent way. If even men we counted as saints could do such terrible things, who could be trusted? The Church is holy because Christ is holy. Yes, she is a divine institution. But she is also a human one, and composed of sinners. The trouble is that the priest signifies Christ. Jesus can work through a bad priest, but more often than not, his work is distorted by priestly sinfulness. The face of Christ in the community of faith is blurred and disfigured.

    Your answer about why a priest could not absolutely be stripped of his priesthood is a good one. The sacramental character is permanent. Even Judas remains a priest, albeit probably in hell. Men who abuse children, indeed, I would add to this homosexual acts even with adults, should not be allowed to continue in ministry. Many of these older men are warehoused in Church gulags (sorry, treatment centers), some are in prison, and others are laicized. The misnomer is that laicization strips away priesthood; all it really does it reduces a man to the lay state in terms of his activity. He cannot offer the sacraments or dress as a cleric. The canon law is a bit peculiar about this because laicization now requires the determination that the man should never have been ordained. Piety once contended that a man could trust that he was called when the bishop called his name. Thus, he was to brush aside any lingering doubts. Given the scandals, this way of thinking is shelved; evidently mistakes were sometimes made. The argumentation here is somewhat similar to that used in annulments; however, while some marriages are not valid, even the ordinations of poor candidates remain valid. Why? Otherwise, if a man’s priesthood was judged null-and-void, then all the Masses he offered, the absolutions extended, etc. would also be invalid. Goodness, think of all the stipends that would require new Masses or return to the donors!

    You write, “The fact is that when someone does something really bad, we are not satisfied unless there is retributive justice.” You hit it on the head, although I think the big bucks hurt the wrong people— those in the pews, not those at the top of the pyramid. Look at all the viable churches closed in Boston! Across the country, people have lost their parishes to pay for the misdeeds of priests. Despite our historical fear of trustees, I think the corporate sole approach has cost us too dearly.

    You continue: “It is not enough to take steps to ensure that the offense is not repeated—though obviously that needs to be done. When someone commits a terrible crime, the harmony of the world is disturbed, and only a fitting punishment can restore order.” Okay, but what can make proper restitution for stolen innocence and violated trust?

    You mention jail time, but what is appropriate… 3 months, 11 months, 20 plus years? We have priests who have abused young people and the amount of incarceration varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction? What about proof? Unless the man confesses, it is one person’s word against another. Many of the cases are decades old. Often the priests are long dead and cannot defend themselves. What about innocent priests who have their vocations destroyed by false charges? We have had incidents of this in the archdiocese as well. So-called victims have recanted, sometimes long after a man has been suspended and removed from ministry. The news reports the charges but rarely the recantation. Cardinal priest Avery Dulles thinks the current policy of the bishops throws such men to the dogs. Where is his justice?

    You write that many believe the priest should face punishment from the Church: “…a punishment delivered over and above the boom that the state lowers. Such a punishment is necessary in order to restore the order of justice within the human institution of the Church.”

    Gulp! Laicization is considered the greatest censure a priest can face, next to formal excommunication. But you write: “If I were a bishop or religious superior who judged after careful investigation that one of my priests had abused a minor, I hope and pray that I would be man enough to call the priest into my office and beat him up right then and there, before I turned him over to the police.”

    Oh boy, what can I say? You do know that the priest would probably charge you with assault and battery, right? Bishops do not like doing jail time. I suppose you could send him to a Third World assignment, feigning concern to get him out of the country. The clandestine operation, managed by an underling to allow deniability, would re-channel social justice funds in a clandestine fashion to the local militia hit squad. They would take care of your pervert priest, making him hurt plenty in the process. You might even be able to re-image him as a martyr falsely accused. Of course, you would probably go to hell for doing such a thing. Such retributive justice sometimes comes awfully close to revenge.

    You write: “The beat down would involve a barrage of punches to the stomach, chest, and shoulders, raining pain down on the criminal, without breaking anything or hitting him in the head or below the belt. What happened to Fr. Shanley—killed by another inmate after being incarcerated for sexual abuse of children—is wrong; I am not talking about a vigilante execution. I am talking about the controlled corporal punishment of an adult.”

    I understand the sentiment, but the Church is not authorized to issue corporal punishment. You know that as well as I do; I hope this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But again, how much is this to teach the villain a lesson, and how much to appease our own anger and disappointment? Even when it comes to divine justice, as much as we might damn him, he might repent and merit God’s mercy. People really get upset about this, that they might have to share heaven with perverts and child molesters! Ah, we really do not like the good thief story all that much, at least not when we are not imagining ourselves as the thief.

    You write: “I would be glad to be called into to administer them (the beating) if the bishop judged himself to be physically incompetent to do so.” Alright, but how many of these men are physically sound? Many are elderly and have heart conditions. I would suggest that the best action would be one directed toward the mind and heart—not simply to the body. These men should no longer deny the truth about themselves or what they did. They should be compelled to meditate on how they hurt children. Every waking moment should be filled with tears and remorse. Instead of suing dioceses and hurting more innocent people in the pews, these men should live austere lives of prayer and mortification. Any profit derived from their work should be given to those they hurt or to those agencies or persons who care for abused children. They should not simply be laicized and released into the public where they might continue their threat. No matter whether a prison or a monastery, they should resolve that their public lives are over. We cannot trust them. They should know that they cannot trust themselves. The Liturgy of the Hours and the General Intercessions in the daily Eucharist offered for them would include the lists of names of those they harmed. They would pray daily for the healing of the children and the souls of those children now adults. A life of reparation is not too much to ask of men who robbed children of their innocence and in many cases, their faith.

    The canon law against striking a cleric was revised and now only refers to the person of the Holy Father. I would still counsel against it as I would the death penalty, given the opposition of Pope John Paul II to the latter… no matter what St. Thomas Aquinas said about the question and the Fifth Commandment.

    You write: “The thing here is that I am not kidding. If every bishop who received an allegation had investigated it, and if he had, finding a priest guilty, administered a beat-down before turning the priest over to the police—if this had happened, there would be no scandal, and there would have been a great deal fewer crimes of this kind committed by priests. I am ready to come to the Pastoral Center to do what needs to be done, if necessary.”

    I am sorry Father Mark, but I still think you must be kidding. In any case, you know as well as I do, that no such call will ever come. But, what is more likely is that you will one day encounter somewhat (maybe not a priest) who has done something terrible to a child. If the knowledge comes outside the Confessional and professional secrecy, then you must contact the police. If it is someone involves with the Church, then you must also contact the archdiocese. If you learn such a terrible secret in the Confessional, then you must give what counsel you are able and then go on as if you know nothing. The seal is absolute, even if it brings us to the Cross.

  7. Thank you Diane and Regina. To be heard is surely healing.

    Just to be clear to all, the victims are not closing churches due to financial settlements. Most claims are paid for by the church’s insurance companies. Churches are closing because of lack of priests, fewer people (even if they do call themselves catholics) going to church (as well as their 1 or 2 – not 10 or 12 – children), and the deterioration of tithing.

    Sexual abuse of children by priests and other religious is a sin. It is a crime too. Somehow that seems to get lost in the translation.

    The abuse of power is best not labelled. Whether it be pedophilia, ephebophilia, rape or whatever, it is still abuse regardless of the age of the victim. There is an inherent power imbalance because of his title. Further, he has the power to kill something so deep and ingrained in us – which is why we call it soul murder. That’s exactly what it is.

    As far as false reports go, there are fewer false reports of sexual assault than any other crime. Does it happen? Yes. But false reports are very rare (and they do get reported by the media). What is even more common are cases where a priest is found not guilty. There’s a difference between innocent, and not guilty.

    As far as proving a case goes, the people with the truth are the perpetrators who lie (and deny) and the bishops etc., who invariably have proof, choose not to be transparent and hide and/or deny the existence of personnel files. Every priest that I know of who had been credibly accused or charged, has in his file letters from parishioners, other priests or doctors that his crimes were known.

    In the years that I have been a victim advocate, I never, ever recommend that anyone go to the church to report the crime. I tell them they will be revictimized (and my experience here was that the response I and others received was far more harmful than the actual abuse suffered). It’s still a boys club!

    What I do tell victims is to surround themselves with support (personal and professional) report the crime to the police when they are able, and if appropriate, call a lawyer. The only way we’ll get the attention of the corporate church is through money. Do you think the pope’s (inadequate) apology came from the bottom of his heart? No. It came from the bottom line (of their financial statements).

    None of us wanted to sue the church. But we were given no other choice. Unfortunately, money talks. The legal process is draining, revictimizing and expensive. But that’s the price we have to pay to make sure our children and grandchildren are safe. Because we know no one else will.

    Today, there’s still far too much lip-service to what needs to be done. It’s a smoke screen for the laity to believe that this will never happen again and it’s not happening now. I know a woman who recently told me that she wrote to the bishop about some serious suspicions she and other parents were having about a priest. He told her to quit gossiping and mind her own business! Yet that is not what he publicly espouses. She was devastated! I know the feeling… because when they told me they’d “take care of” an abusing priest, I too believed them. But I didn’t know that ‘taking care of’ him meant moving him to another unsuspecting parish.

    Oh the stories I could tell! To get an idea of what’s going on today, go to bishopaccountability.org and http://www.bishop-accountability.org/AbuseTracker/.

    Thanks for reading. Joan

  8. Dear Joan, except for the reference to Diane and Regina, could I repost your last comment here on my blog. I will make no changes or additions to it. It might be a good corrective and add necessary balance to my own thoughts. We might disagree about some things but you are right, the victims come first.– FATHER JOE

  9. I have to say, I admire your courage in dealing with the difficult subject of the clergy raping children. I just have to ponder at the Catholic Church’s position that a priest can’t be fired when it’s the Church’s own law that prevents it from doing so.

    That is a circular argument and is a completely absurd position. Simply declaring a thing doesn’t make it so. You and every reasonable Catholic surely must know that in your gut.

    You say Canon Law prohibits striking a cleric but that perhaps an exception could be made. This would be the same body of Canon Law that says a priest remains a priest forever. Perhaps an exception could be made to carry out violent retribution, but yet no such exception can be found to totally sever a relationship with a child rapist.

    Absurd, absurd, absurd.

    What hope can there be of repairing the Church’s credibility and honour while such evil is allowed to remain in your midst?

    Matt…

  10. I don’t think that this sex abuse is going on only in the Catholic church. If you watch the news everyday, it seems to be going on everywhere, and no one single faith is immune to these types of accusations. Maybe this is all related to the decline of society, and peoples morals and values have gone down the drain, especially in the last 25 years. As I look back, I believe this is because folks dont have any respect for themselves or for their neighbor anymore. I was raised Catholic, and I can honestly say that me nor any of my siblings were ever “touched” or abused in any way.

  11. I was given the advice that I should do nothing. The offender would be punished, but to make it public would only sear the event into the brain of the child forever. I took that advice and have regretted it daily ever since. It made such a horrible memory for my daughter and she felt not only betrayed by the priest, but also by her parents who did nothing for her. She is now 51 and just beginning to realize that she was not at fault and that she is a good person. I don’t know how she would have been if we had done something.

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