Some Problems with the New Rules


1. In the preface to Vos Estis Lux Mundi, Pope Francis insists that we cultivate holiness, so that crimes of sexual abuse “never happen again.”

Problem is: this sentiment discourages victims from speaking. Sex abuse not only happens in secret, it involves long-term, merciless brainwashing. The abuser twists reality to make the victim believe: a. there’s nothing wrong going on here at all; it’s actually beautiful love; and b. telling anyone would destroy the beautiful intimacy we have.

A great and marvelous miracle occurs whenever a sex-abuse victim finds the clarity to recognize: I am the victim of a crime that merits imprisonment. I will crawl out from under the cloak of deception that this abuser has thrown over me, and I will speak the truth, holding nothing back, mincing no words. Not sure I can survive the ordeal, but I can’t live in the web of lies anymore.

Sean Connery Macbeth
Sean Connery and Zoe Caldwell as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

The last thing anyone in this situation needs is for the authority that can and must do justice against the abuser to insist shrilly that: ‘Such things must never happen!’ Of coure, they shouldn’t happen. All sane people know that. But, in fact, they do happen.

A victim needs someone to listen–someone who is not sorry that the victim is speaking. Angry that it happened, yes. Ready to right the wrong. But realistic enough to know that, in this fallen world, we need clear procedures and penalties to deal with the crime of sexual abuse–because it happens. It happens all the daggone time. We are a fallen race of sinners, we human beings.

2. In his motu proprio, Pope Francis outlaws sexual acts by clerics and religious with a minor, defining a ‘minor’ as under 18. As far as clerics, this law already stood, defined as ‘the delict against the sixth commandment’ with a minor.

At first glance, both phrases seem clear enough–‘delict against the sixth commandment’ and ‘sexual acts.’ Problem is: it’s actually not anywhere near as clear as it first appears.

A spectrum spans from: a social-media message intended to ‘groom’ a victim, on one end, to: actual sexual penetration, on the other. Where on that spectrum does the proscribed delict begin? Flirty talk? Kissing? Fondling? Of course all of these are wrong. But not every wrong thing is a crime.

McCarrick ordination

A billion-dollar industry has grown up in the Catholic Church in the US to try to prevent sexual abuse of minors. Criminal background checks, training, certifications, etc. A whole professional class has emerged in this area.

Everyone must watch out for ‘grooming.’ Sexual abuse almost never occurs without a long period of grooming preceding it. So we rightly strive to prevent grooming.

Problem is: ‘Grooming’ does not fall under criminal law. Because a perfectly innocent social overture–one that might even have real Christian charity for its motivation–can look exactly like an act of grooming. It’s not illegal to send someone a facebook message. And yet a facebook message can lead to a misplaced sense of trust, which can lead to a channel of secret communication, which can lead to sexual abuse.

I do not hold myself out as a canonical or safe-environment expert, by any means. I merely intend to point out that the motu proprio not only did not solve this issue, it didn’t even address it.

3. Pope Francis has outlawed: “forcing someone [anyone–even an adult], through the abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.” [emphasis added]

I guess we could call this “The McCarrick Law.” Apparently, he clearly abused his authority to get sex. After all, the pope convicted him of breaking this law (even before it was on the books) in a summary administrative procedure, without a full trial.

But: If it was as clear as all that, why wasn’t McCarrick convicted by Pope Benedict, back in 2006? We generally regard Pope Benedict as a sober, upright man. Why didn’t he recognize a case of criminal abuse, if the matter was so crystal-clear?

McCarrick ordained me a transitional deacon 18 years ago today. On that day, I thought of him as an amazingly talented, crushingly self-centered, charming tyrant. He gave the Archdiocese of Washington a huge amount of energy that it had not previously had. He appeared utterly uninterested in anything having to do with theology. He was a flawed man. He was no walking demon.

On May 13, 2001, many churchmen, who we then regarded as at least somewhat reasonable–including Pope John Paul II–knew something about McCarrick’s sexual life. They had not concluded that his actions amounted to crimes.

My point is: I think anyone who has ever served in the military knows: The line between criminal abuse of authority in a sexual relationship, on the one hand, and a consensual affair, on the other: by no means crystal-clear.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth do grave evils. Who convinced whom to do them? Did Macbeth abuse his authority over his wife? Or did she seduce him into committing murder–to satisfy her ambition? The answer is: Yes.

Criminal laws on paper accomplish nothing without competent investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges–and principles of application of the laws, based on acquired experience. Pope Francis has given us: the paper. We don’t have the rest.

4 thoughts on “Some Problems with the New Rules

  1. The Church has annulment tribunals to adjudicate the validity of marriages (sacrament). Is there no provision in Canon law for tribunals to adjudicate the validity of Holy Orders (sacrament)? If a marriage can be erased because one or both parties were incapable of/too immature to/not fully consenting….then why are clerical vows any different? We are married until death. Or until we can get a tribunal to nullify it. You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. Or until your crime(s) and scandal ruin lives.

    1. Honest questions. But just to distinguish… The sacrament of marriage occurs by an act of consent by both parties. Ordination, however, does not absolutely require consent, so a defect of consent does not mean an invalid ordination. The sacrament of marriage does not impart a permanent mark or ‘character’ on the soul; ordination, like baptism and confirmation, does. The sacred powers of the priest to consecrate the Host and forgive sins rely on that sacred mark. If an ordination were judged invalid, meaning the sacred character was never imparted, then all the acts of ministry that the priest had done–all the consecrations at Mass and the absolutions in confession–would have been invalid. (Which, again, differs from marriage. A marriage annulment does not mean that the children are illegitimate, because the marriage was in good faith believed to exist when the children were conceived.)

      Hence there are no ‘annulments’ for priests based on defective consent; if a bishop lays hands on a man and gives the sacrament of Order, then the recipient is ordained, regardless of what was going on in the man’s mind at the time. The only case where an ordination could be ‘annulled’ would be if a woman presented herself for ordination disguised as a man. That ordination would be null and void.

      Nonetheless, priests can be (and not infrequently are) ‘defrocked’ involuntarily because of their crimes. They are still priests, but they cannot present themselves as such, or do any ministry–with the exception of emergencies when someone dying needs a priest, and a defrocked priest is the only one available.

      I’m not defending the way in which all this has been handled over the past fifty years. I’m just explaining the principles. The current practice requires a secret trial to defrock a priest. In my opinion, that policy of strict secrecy has caused catastrophic problems.

  2. Right after I saw this blog post … an article came out about Pope Francis no longer hiding behind this….the article seemed to say… well now that Pope Francis said this is what must happen there is no longer a problem

  3. Fr. Mark – thank you for clarifying the difference between marriage and holy orders (in terms of the permanence of each) and why priestly ordination can never be undone. Those are crucial distinctions, especially with respect to priestly administration of the sacraments.

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