Sunday, November 19, 2006

Tribunal #1 -- First In a Series?

This week in Erie, The Church v. Charlie Kavanagh -- the first ecclesiastical tribunal for a sex-abuse case in the US -- wrapped.

As scribbled about previously, Kavanagh was the high-powered vicar for development of the archdiocese of New York until accusations against him were raised by a onetime high school seminarian, Daniel Donohue (above, with his sister), in June 2002. As the case was beyond the civil statute, and given the suspended cleric's protestations of innocence -- including wearing his collar to his 60th birthday party in defiance of the Dallas charter -- Donohue had his day in court last week, but not technically.

Canonically, the parties to the tribunal were lawyers for the archdiocese of New York, seeking to prove the guilt of the accused, and for Kavanagh, seeking to clear their client. The alleged victim was merely the "star witness" for the archdiocese.

In case there was any doubt, David Clohessy isn't happy with the tribunal process:
[F]or victims, he said, a church trial promises little satisfaction.

"They've been hurt by a predatory priest and a series of cold-hearted church bureaucrats," Clohessy said. "Why would they voluntarily submit to a secretive process run by a series of cold-hearted church bureaucrats?"
For what it's worth, Donohue -- just the voluntary submitter who was actually, you know, in the room -- found what Clohessy would call his "series of three cold-hearted church bureaucrats" neither cold-hearted, nor bureaucratic.
Before he answered any questions Friday morning, he said, he asked each judge to describe when they became aware of how pervasive sexual abuse was in the church, and what they did about it. Their answers were satisfying enough that he agreed to tell his story.

"I can say they understood," he said. "At that moment, in that room, there was a clear understanding of what was at stake."
(i.e. the ecclesiastical tribunal isn't guilty of making SNAP judgements.)

For his part, however, Donohue would not assent to keeping his experience and testimony under the customarily-requisite pontifical secret. As Gary Stern reports:
Donohue, now 42 and a father of four, said he refused to sign an oath of secrecy and told the panel of three priests that he opposed the closed nature of the trial.

"I spoke of why I would not give up my voice, my truth," he said by phone. "I told them that this secrecy caused my abuse."

Donohue said that when one of his sisters testified this week and refused to promise confidentiality, she was told that she could be subject to papal discipline.

"They wouldn't tell her what it meant," he said.
As the fifth anniversary of the avalanche of revelations from Boston approaches, the Erie trial -- moved there from New York at the request of the archdiocese, keen to tamp down on media attention -- returns the issue of the handling of abuse cases to the forefront.

In an emblematic example of the timeline of contested abuse cases and the speed with which they work their way through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Roman dicastery charged with processing them), while the accusations against Kavanagh were leveled in June '02, the trial was given the go-ahead only in January of this year, and the parties weren't notified of its place or time until about a fortnight ago. While the USCCB initially lent two of America's top canonists to aid the CDF's Discipline office in tackling its extensive backlog of abuse cases, but one currently remains: Msgr Bob Deeley of the archdiocese of Boston.

While significantly less prominent than the CDF's sex-abuse portfolio -- which even the new Grand Inquisitor, Cardinal William Levada, cited as a factor in his appointment to the post -- another Roman process which has experienced a significant uptick since the abuse eruption and subsequent episcopal response in the US is that of the "administrative" or "hierarchic recourse." In cases where a diocesan bishop deprives one of his priests of his lawful faculties, privileges or due compensation for reasons extant the "more grave delicts" (e.g. abuse of a minor, absolution of an accomplice, etc.) reserved to the onetime Holy Office, the sanctioned cleric has the right to appeal the decision to the Congregation for the Clergy.

Suffice it to say, more than ever have. The impending docket of these requests for review is massive; recourses filed 18 to 24 months ago still await replies, a significant number being overturned not on grounds of substance, but the procedures used (the latter said to be the Roman preference, wherever possible). It is important to note that once a recourse is filed, according to law the effects of the decision at issue are suspended until a finding is reached and communicated to the parties.

It's very possible that the role of Clero in the recourses played a part in the Pope's decision to name Cardinal Claudio Hummes as the dicastery's new prefect. Unlike his predecessor, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the outgoing archbishop of Sao Paolo is: 1. a religious and 2. not a canonist. Of course, this is balanced out by Hummes' 31 years dealing with secular clergy as a diocesan bishop, but his roots and choice of community cannot be discounted.

Given that background and the current situation, could it be said that Benedict XVI wants a more balanced, more pastoral, less technical approach to the bishop-priest relationship?

It's looking that way right now. However, as the proof's in the pudding and the backlog of recourses is long, let's revisit the question in two years.

Rich Forsgren/AP