Why Aren’t Sexually Abusive Catholic Priests Excommunicated?

May 1, 2002

by Mary Mostert, Analyst - Banner of Liberty

Following their meeting in Rome with Pope John Paul II, U.S. Roman Catholic Church leaders issued a statement which said in part that the meeting was “called with three goals in mind.” Those goals were to “inform the Holy See about the difficulties” the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops “have faced in recent months;” to hear directly from the American cardinals “a general evaluation of the situation” and “to develop ways to move forward in addressing these issues.”

Now, I’m not a Catholic, but it seems to me that the “issues” involved were not complex. It used to be called “sexual sin.” And, once upon a time, when people in the Catholic Church committed sexual sin, or other egregious sins, there was something called “excommunication” which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is in order when “Considered from a moral and juridical standpoint, the guilt requisite for the incurring of excommunication implies, first, the full use of reason; second sufficient moral liberty; finally, a knowledge of the law and even of the penalty.”

Obviously, the priests in question who committed sexual sin with minors under their jurisdictions were not mentally incapacitated, had the liberty to do what they did and knew the law of the church. Why haven’t they been excommunicated and, if their sins were also illegal, which they obviously were if they were, as charged, seducing young boys into homosexual acts?

Now, sexual sins committed by members of the clergy are not by any stretch of the imagination confined to the Catholic Church. When I was Public Affairs Director for the Africa Area for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1991-1992 for my own church I attended a meeting organized by Evangelical Protestant Churches to discuss the South African constitution, which was then being written. While the 1,700 ministers from all over Southern Africa met to discuss what should be in the new constitution about religion, an undercurrent of discussion was going on about an issue called “the greatest challenge” facing the Evangelical Protestants of Southern Africa - sexual sins committed by the pastors with members of their congregation.

One minister told me that he thought there ought to be a mechanism set up in the Evangelical Association that could remove pastors who were not keeping the “Thou shalt not commit adultery” commandment Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai.

He was aware that the Mormons do excommunicate men for committing adultery, and for “cruelty to wives and children, immorality and all crimes involving moral turpitude.” In fact, he knew that one of the leaders of a group attacking “the Mormons” was a former Mormon who had been excommunicated for adultery.

The Catholic Bishops statement noted that “The sexual abuse of minors is rightly considered a crime by society and is an appalling sin in the eyes of God, above all when it is perpetrated by priests and religious whose vocation is to help persons to lead holy lives before God and men.”

The statement could have, and probably should have, ended there with the statement that any priest having committed the appalling sin of sexual abuse of minors would be promptly excommunicated and expected to stand trial in a criminal court. But, it didn’t end there. It went on rather defensively stating that “almost all the cases involved adolescents and therefore were not cases of true pedophilia” and that “a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained.”

Why any discussion of science? The Catholic Church is not a scientific organization. It is a religious organization and the sin was, or should have been, quite sufficient to excommunicate a priest guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, or, for that matter, committing fornication with an adult.

The statement also called for “a set of national standards” for “policies dealing with the sexual abuse of minors in dioceses and religious institutes in the United States.” The bishops propose “a special process for the dismissal from the clerical state of a priest who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors.”

That is an incredible statement. Only if the priest has “become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors?” Are the bishops proposing that non-serial sexual abuse of minors is OK?

The next statement is worse: “While recognizing that the Code of Canon law already contains a judicial process for the dismissal of priests guilty of sexually abusing minors, we will also propose a special process for cases which are not notorious, but where the diocesan bishop considers the priest a threat for the protection of children and young people, in order to avoid grave scandal in the future and to safeguard the common good of the church.”

That appears to me to say that sexual abuse is permissible, except when it might become a scandal and impact the church’s reputation.

The last statement proposes “that the bishops of the United States set aside a day for prayer and penance throughout the church in the United States, in order to implore reconciliation and the renewal of ecclesial life.”

This appears to me to be a far cry from taking firm action against wayward priests by promptly excommunicating them. The argument of some that a married priesthood would solve the problem in the Catholic Church incorrectly makes the assumption that this is a problem that only exists because celibacy is expected of Catholic priests. Since most of the cases involved homosexual sex with boys perpetrated by homosexual priests, marriage would not be a cure for the problem.

The seeming inability of the Catholic hierarchy to take firm action against sexually abusive priests is all the more remarkable in view of its firm action against Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who, at age 71, took part in a group marriage ceremony performed by Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. He was given the choice of excommunication or abandoning his new wife.

What strikes me as bizarre is that the Church would threaten excommunication of Archbishop Milingo for getting married at age 71 to a 43 year old Korean woman, but has not even brought up the subject of excommunication of priests who sexually abuse children they should have protected.