As I read about the big mess that has emerged in the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis (and now in Duluth--more about that in a moment), I'm struck by two diametrically opposed understandings of canon law that have also emerged in the discussion of the Minnesota situation. In response to an editorial this past Sunday by Progressive Catholic Voice calling on Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis to resign, Michael Skiendzielewski notes that Rev. Reginald Whitt, professor of canon law at the University of St. Thomas, maintains the following:
Canon law is very eloquent on what a bishop is supposed to do, but there is no list of Thou Shalt Nots. These (sex abusers) are criminals, but they are our criminals and we can't lose them. Indeed, the bishops have a duty to try to save them.
By contrast, Jennifer Haselberger, also a canonist with a licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of Leuven, who is also the person who blew the whistle on the cover-up of abuse cases in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, tells Brian Roewe of National Catholic Reporter,
I was not prepared for this disregard for the requirements of canon law, nor for what appeared to be an equal disregard for civil law, especially in regard to the obligation to report to the civil authorities.
Two very different notions of what canon law is and how it should function are at work in these statements by two different canonists in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. For Rev. Whitt, it appears that canon law is there primarily to serve the needs of clerics. Clerics deserve to be saved. The primary, overriding obligation of bishops is to try to save clerics.
Rev. Whitt's understanding of canon law seems oblivious to the rights and needs of lay Catholics--of children to be protected from pedophile priests, of parents to have assurance from bishops that no pedophile priests will be assigned to parishes in which there are children, of all the people of God to have the assurance that our bishops are dealing with us in an open, transparent, honest, and ethical fashion. Dr. Haselberger's formulation of what canon law means implies that it exists not merely to safeguard the interests of the ordained, but that it's there to serve the people of God in general.
As long as we have bishops (with canonists who think as Rev. Whitt does to advise them) who assume that their primary pastoral responsibility as bishops, bolstered by canon law itself, is to "save" pedophile priests while ignoring the needs of the people of God, we'll continue to have dangerous priests placed by bishops in positions in which they'll have access to minors. And we'll have cover-ups.
Rev. Whitt has just been appointed vicar for ministerial standards for the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. In that capacity, he will supervise all issues related to clergy misconduct. If his interpretation of canon law is that canon law exists primarily to safeguard the rights of the ordained, and that the overweening responsibility of bishops is to "save" priests, then one has to wonder what his appointment to this position bodes for the archdiocese, as it addresses the mess it finds itself in right now.
Meanwhile, Duluth: as Kristine Ward, director of National Survivor Advocates Coalition, notes in an editorial statement today for Duluth News Tribune, officials of the Duluth Catholic diocese recently announced that they had "rather quickly" removed a priest, Rev. Cornelius Kelleher, from ministry after credible allegations that he had molested a girl. However, as Kris Ward also notes, it now comes out that Bishop Paul Sirba received the report of abuse on which he is claiming he acted "rather quickly" over a year ago.
Bishop Sirba sat on the report and did not inform the local criminal authorities. As Kris writes,
When the allegation came in, and when it was deemed credible, and when the priest was suspended, Sirba and his staff did not ring whistles and bells to alert parishioners or the public. They bought time. They controlled the timing of the announcement. Time gives predators ample opportunity to destroy evidence, intimidate victims, threaten whistleblowers, discredit witnesses, fabricate alibis, flee overseas and molest more kids . . . .
As she also points out, he has not been forthcoming about the whereabouts of the priest removed from ministry, who could be living in a place in which he has contact with minors. Kris concludes the following about Bishop Sirba's response to the report he received 14 months ago with credible allegations about Rev. Kelleher:
Time and time again for more than a decade, Catholic officials have pledged to be "open and transparent" in clergy sex abuse cases. Time and time again, they have broken that promise.
Bishop Sirba is the latest. He learned of, investigated, and took action on child sex abuse, telling only a few trusted colleagues and making sure parents, parishioners, police and the public were kept in the dark. And 14 months after hearing about the alleged crimes, he announced them — but still didn’t contact independent law enforcement.
That’s secrecy, not openness. That’s recklessness, not prudence. That’s "business as usual," not reform.
Kris Ward is correct. And the reason that business as usual continues to be done in Catholic chanceries is that far too many top pastoral leaders of the Catholic church assume that the rights of the ordained override all other rights in the church. And that lay members of the church have no rights to speak of, in the canonical structures of the church, which were designed to protect priests first and foremost.