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Why Priests Forced To Resign Rarely Face Complete Ouster

Jun 2, 2002 | Seattle Times

Two weeks ago, as the Rev. John Cornelius resigned from active ministry amid allegations that he had molested at least 12 boys decades ago, questions arose: If Cornelius could no longer wear the collar, represent himself as a priest or preside at Mass, why should the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle pay his living expenses?

Why would he — and others found guilty or facing credible allegations of sexual molestation of minors — not be removed from the priesthood altogether?

Those questions loomed even larger as another priest in the Seattle Archdiocese resigned Thursday, accused of sexually molesting a minor years ago. Like Cornelius, the Rev. Dennis Champagne will also remain a priest, but will no longer be allowed to wear the collar, preside at Mass or perform other sacraments, or represent himself as a priest.

Yet the archdiocese also will continue paying his living expenses, though in both the Champagne and Cornelius cases, church officials won't say specifically how much financial support they will offer or for how long.

"The church shouldn't have to pay for their living expenses because what they did was criminal," said Carol McGuinn, 54, a lifelong Catholic who occasionally attends St. Anne Church on Queen Anne Hill. McGuinn, who has usually given to the collection plate in the past, said she's thinking long and hard about doing so in the future.

"I won't give if it goes to the living expenses of these priests who've molested," she said.

Process is misunderstood

Bill Gallant, Seattle Archdiocese spokesman, said the public largely misunderstands the obligations of the church to take care of its priests, typically a lifetime commitment whether or not a priest is actively ministering. He also said people misunderstand what defrocking — or "forced laicization," as the church calls it — really entails and what the process involves.

In theological terms, Catholics believe that once a priest is ordained, he undergoes an intrinsic change that's permanent.

Being a priest is who one is, not just a job one does. It is a sacrament, considered a binding promise with God, not something that can be undone with just the stroke of an administrative pen.

"It would be like unbaptizing me," Gallant said.

The only ways a priest can become "laicized" is by the priest himself voluntarily requesting laicization of the Vatican or by a superior petitioning the Vatican for it. Both are often long and cumbersome processes.

In any case, defrocking is only one of the penalties — albeit the most serious — the church can mete out to priests believed to have sexually molested minors.

The first set of options doesn't necessarily fall under canon — or church — law and can be exercised at a bishop's discretion.

Because these actions don't require Vatican approval or church trial, and because they can be administered quickly, these are the choices bishops have made most often in the current nationwide sex-abuse scandals.

Bishops are allowed to restrict or put conditions on a priest's duties. Cornelius, for instance, was not allowed to associate with altar boys without supervision after a sexual-abuse complaint was filed against him in 1996. Bishops may also require that a priest undergo counseling, as was the case with Cornelius and Champagne.

A bishop may also choose to remove a priest from active ministry, or the priest himself may choose to voluntarily resign from active ministry.

In the case of Cornelius, the Seattle Archdiocese decided "what was important is that he be removed from active ministry," Gallant said. "What's important is that the community be protected and the best interests of the Catholic community be taken. It's the quickest action that can be taken."

Archbishop Alex Brunett informed Cornelius of his intention to remove him from active ministry May 22. Cornelius resigned two days later. On Wednesday, Brunett informed Champagne that he was to go on administrative leave while an accusation against him was investigated. Champagne tendered his resignation after the meeting.

Resignation from active ministry is a profound move, Gallant said, "about as severe as you can get."

"These are people who, for better or worse, have dedicated themselves to this life. And now they're being told: You can no longer represent yourself in active ministry," Gallant said. "To someone who's a priest, that's very serious."

A permanent relationship

What some critics take issue with is that the church will continue to pay the living expenses of Cornelius, Champagne and others who are no longer actively ministering.

In fact, the archdiocese is required to do so under church law. The obligation stems from a concept called "incardination" and refers to the permanent relationship that's formed between a priest and bishop upon a priest's attachment to a diocese. The priest and bishop each has his own set of obligations and responsibilities, set out in canon law.

The priest must be available to minister, be obedient to the pope and bishop, faithfully fulfill the function he's been entrusted with and has an obligation to pursue a holy life.

The bishop must provide moral, social and economic support for the priest, which translates into not only payment for work but also a "fraternal relationship," a concern for the health and well-being of a priest that goes beyond merely employer-employee relations to brotherly care, said The Very Rev. Anthony Bawyn of Seattle, a canon lawyer and a consultant on canon law for the Seattle Archdiocese.

"Unlike secular employers, who may summarily terminate the position of an employee accused or suspected of misconduct, bishops have made a lifelong commitment to provide spiritual, intellectual and financial support to the priest," Bawyn said in testimony given during a 1996 court case.

"Even valid allegations of misconduct are not in and of themselves grounds for terminating the virtually irrevocable obligations that the bishop has assumed vis-à-vis the priest."

That obligation holds even if a priest is no longer actively ministering.

The bishop does, however, have the discretion to decide how much financial support to offer and under what conditions. A priest who doesn't have a family home to return to or immediate means of making a living in the secular world may receive more in compensation, to begin with, than someone with a home and job to turn to, Bawyn said.

The money generally comes out of the dioceses and parishes — ultimately, from the contributions of lay Catholics.

Bawyn said he doesn't know the arrangements the archdiocese made with specific priests, but typically a bishop would provide a priest with enough money for basic living expenses, including rent, food and transportation, with the understanding that the priest is taking steps to become self-sufficient. A bishop may also provide resources for education or training for the priest to get a job in the secular world.

Used much more rarely are the more cumbersome — and often more serious — penalties afforded under church law. It is under church law that a priest can be suspended or defrocked.

A priest may also voluntarily ask for laicization from the Vatican. This releases the person from all obligations of being a priest. Some priests have requested it to get married.

The most serious penalty is forced laicization — defrocking — in which all commitments between a priest and his bishop are severed.

In these cases, the accused priest must be charged with a crime under canon law and usually must go through church trial.

Finding solid evidence against an accused priest going through church trial "could be extremely hard," Bawyn said. Allegations alone may not be enough to find a priest guilty of breaking a church law for which defrocking is an option.

Vatican approval is required before such penalties can be dealt. The process usually takes at least a year, as the case winds its way from the local diocese through the Vatican bureaucracy.

If a priest is laicized, the incardination bond is also broken, and the church is not obligated to provide for the ex-priest's livelihood.

Forced laicization is rarely sought "because it is so cumbersome," Bawyn said. "It would take a year or two. You'd have to get testimony, make sure the rights are protected. Then there are appeals."

In the Seattle Archdiocese, the Rev. James McGreal, who the archdiocese had said had a continued history of molesting boys until his offenses surfaced publicly in 1988, was not defrocked. He was, however, permanently removed from active ministry in 1988.

McGreal was the subject of a lawsuit last week filed by six former altar boys who claim they were sexually abused by him in the 1970s. McGreal is residing in a closely supervised church facility in Missouri, most likely drawing on a church retirement fund into which he had paid.

It was the actions of McGreal and another priest, the Rev. Paul Conn, that prompted the archdiocese to initiate a policy in the late 1980s for dealing with sexually abusive priests.

Conn served prison time for molesting altar boys. He is no longer a priest and the archdiocese no longer pays his living expenses nor has any connection to him. It was unclear yesterday whether he asked to be laicized or if it was forced.

Still, Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," said that "the bar for being removed (from priesthood) is pretty high." He can only think of a few priests who have been defrocked for egregious sexual abuse of children, among them John Geoghan in Boston and Rudy Kos in Dallas.

"Those names have cost their respective dioceses staggering amounts of money," Berry said.

Streamlining the process

While some argue that defrocking is not done often enough, others say it doesn't benefit the community.

"If you have a person who's laicized, doesn't have a bond with the diocese anymore, then no one is responsible for keeping an eye on this man," Bawyn said.

But critics such as Berry say that "the reason so few have been laicized is because the pope has refused to focus on this crisis with the scrutiny that it deserves."

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas later this month, there will most likely be discussion on how to streamline the defrocking process.

But how much — if any — power the U.S. bishops will have to do so is unclear. Before last May, bishops were allowed to forcibly laicize priests. But last year, the Vatican became more restrictive, "reserving to itself all penal procedures having to do with sexual abuse," Bawyn said.

Bawyn doesn't know why the Vatican did that, but he wants to believe it was because Rome wanted to get a better scope of the sexual-abuse problem and be even-handed in how it deals with it.

Still, Bawyn said, "with the number of bishops in the U.S., if they had total agreement that they want that power restored, they would have that power."

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