Monday, August 12, 2002

Back again!

Well, I'm back from my blogging hiatus. The trip to Detroit was enjoyable, and the interview with Al Kresta was a lot of fun. Al is a very even-handed interviewer, and an all around good-guy. I'll blog more about the interview and its "fallout" later...

More Thoughts on Zero Tolerance and Fr. DeVita

I had a very interesting conversation with some of my brother priests last weekend about the Zero Tolerance policy and its effect on priests like Fr. Tom DeVita, about whom I blogged here and here last week. What I found interesting in the conversation with my brother priests (all of whom I would classify as in the orthodox/conservative camp), was that they all took a harder line than I with regard to priests like Fr. DeVita, who committed an act of abuse in the distant past and since then have mended their ways and served well.

All of us expressed disapointment in what we perceive as the bishops playing PR games at the expense of their priests in their adoption of the Dallas norms. All thought that Zero Tolerance, if allowed to stand, would become a weapon by which bishops could abuse priests whom they found troublesome. All thought that the priests removed by the Zero Tolerance "process" would probably be returned to active ministry, as their canonical right to due process was ignored.

But the thing that surprised me was that, to a man, they all thought that priests like Fr. DeVita should be out, period. There was no question about repentance or forgiveness: all agreed that a priest-abuser who repented and amended his life was forgiven. But they thought it was too damaging to trust within the Church, and too damaging to the priesthood, to allow these priests to continue in any form of active ministry.

One of my friends also made an argument that I hadn't considered before, and found powerful: He pointed out that Fr. DeVita had never been prosecuted and convicted for his crime, much less served any sort of sentence. He has never been sued or made to pay any sort of civil damages. He has been allowed to continue in active ministry all along. Now it is too late for any criminal or civil remedies. The bishops have made it clear in the Dallas norms that removal of priest-abusers is not to be considered a punitive act against the abuser, but is aimed solely at protecting children (this claim struck my brother priests as more than a little disingenuous). Fr. DeVita and others like him retain their faculties to celebrate Mass privately. So, my priest-friend claimed, Fr. DeVita has never actually been punished. But Justice demands punishment for such serious crimes as sexual abuse. I have thought about this quite a bit, and I find this argument unassailable. To cry "mercy" here is not on-point. For mercy tempers justice; mercy mitigates punishment. Mercy does not obviate the punishment that belongs to justice.

So, my friend concluded, priests who committed sexual abuse decades ago and were never subject to punishment still have punishment due them. That the demands of justice be satisfied is necessary both for the victims and the offenders. Since these men are beyond the reach of civil law, perhaps we as a Church need in some way to step in and supply the punishment that was avoided, and supply the justice that is still lacking. In this light, he said, removing such priests from ministry, and in fact involuntarily laicizing them, is only just, and compared to civil penalties, quite merciful.

As I said before, I find this argument compelling, and it is causing me to rethink my position on removal of priests who have abused in the past but are repentant. Mark, Greg, Amy, care to chime in?