What happens when canon law and civil law collide? That will be a pressing question when the U.S. Catholic bishops meet in Washington, D.C., Nov. 11-14. They are expected to vote on changes made by a committee of Vatican officials and American bishops to their new zero-tolerance policy for sexually abusive priests.
At issue is whether the revised policy sets bishops in conflict with civil law and attorneys general eager to prosecute hundreds of new allegations of abuse. The Vatican requested the changes to bring the policy into compliance with canon law and protect the due process rights of priests. Those concerns disappointed victims' groups, but they also drew the ire of some civil authorities. In Massachusetts, the state attorney general ordered dioceses to ignore the Vatican’s decree and institute the Dallas plan immediately. Secular authorities cannot dictate church rules, but with such an emotional issue, frustration may further alienate the two at a time when some legal authorities may not trust bishops to obey the law – civil or canon, according to Charles M. Wilson, a canon law expert.
How will the revised rules balance canon and civil law, and how will it affect current cases? How will your local diocese balance the tension between the two? Will other states follow Massachusetts' lead and demand that bishops institute the Dallas plan without the Vatican revisions?
Why it Matters
The Roman Catholic Church is one of many denominations with sexual abuse problems. How church and secular authorities carry out their responsibilities could affect the handling of many other cases.
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• Experts incanon law can be found through the CanonLaw Society of America in Washington, D.C. Contact 202-269-3491, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click the map for interview sources
in your state and region
• Father Tom Doyle helped write the 1985 report to the U.S. bishops on theproblem of priests molesting children. Contact him in Germany, where he is a militarychaplain, at 011-496-371-476-148, email@example.com.
• Laurence E. Hardoon is a civil attorney and former prosecutor specializingin child abuse cases in Boston. He has researched the civil and criminal liabilityof the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, as well as the implicationsof the Dallas proposal. Contact 617-880-7100.
• Victor Veith is the director and Allison Turkel is a senior attorney forthe NationalCenter for Prosecution of Child Abuse, which is part of the American ProsecutorsResearch Institute in Alexandria, Va. Both say the main obstacle to the churchformulating a policy that will satisfy victims is the church's attempt to tryto combine the legal and Christian moral aspects of punishment and forgiveness.Contact 703-549-4253.
• The U.S. Conference of CatholicBishops drew up the Dallas proposal and members will now work with the Vaticanon a compromise proposal. Contact Sister Mary Ann Walsh, 202-541-3000.
• Barry Lynn is executive director of AmericansUnited for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, DC-based lobbyinggroup. He has been quoted as saying that canon law is not relevant to criminalor civil law and cannot be used to circumvent the secular legal system. Contact202-466-3234.
• Patrick J. Schiltz is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas,St. Paul, Minn. He has defended dioceses against hundreds of abuse claims. Contact651-962-4896, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Sara Morello is a canon lawyer and senior associate for Catholicsfor a Free Choice in Washington, DC. She has studied the canonical implicationsof the bishops' Dallas proposal. Contact 202-986-6093.
• The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers a side-by-side comparison of the Dallas plan and the revised policy.
• Bishops say the revised policy won't weaken the Dallas plan. Read a Nov. 2 Boston Globe story.
• The Los Angeles Diocese is currently in a war of words with a Southern California prosecutor. The district attorney in Ventura County sent a letter to Cardinal Roger Mahoney claiming the cardinal has evidence of sexual abuse by priests and is "refusing to provide to law enforcement unless compelled to by a court." The diocese called the accusations "nonsense" and said the DA is asking for privileged information.
• A May 10, 2002, Boston Globe article looks at the role of canon law in secular law.
• An April 20, 2002, Washington Post article that looks at how canon law addresses child sexual abuse by priests.
• A May 7, 2002, USA Today article in which canon and criminal law experts discuss the legal ramifications of the child sexual abuse scandal.
• An Oct. 19, 2002, Newsday article on the reaction to the Vatican's rejection of the Dallas proposal.
• An Oct. 19, 2002 Boston Globe article on the Massachusetts' state attorney general's reaction to the Vatican's rejection of Dallas proposal.
• An Oct. 19, 2002 New York Times article on the reaction of bishops and other church leaders to the Vatican rejection.
• An Oct. 19, 2002 Associated Press article on how the Dallas proposal remains a voluntary plan among dioceses.
• An Oct. 19, 2002 Associated Press article that quotes the Vatican's letter to American bishops about its rejection of the Dallas proposal.
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