Criminous clerks

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Back in the day–the day of the Emperor Constantine to be precise–it was decided that Christian clergy were way too exalted for laymen to be allowed to sit in judgment upon. And so when any of them was accused of a crime, the business of determining his guilt or innocence was given over to the Church itself. Time passed, and the principle of Separation of Church and State Criminal Law became deeply engrained in the Church’s understanding of itself. After King Henry II of England in 1164 adopted a set of laws requiring “criminous clerks” to be tried in the royal courts, for example, the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, pitched such a fit that Henry had him murdered in his cathedral. “On this point the Church has always taken a firm stand,” declares the good old Catholic Encyclopedia. “[C]oncessions have been wrung from her only where greater evils were to be avoided.”

This history is worth bearing in mind when considering the case of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, who on Friday became the first American bishop to be indicted for covering up evidence of child sexual abuse by a member of his clergy. As you read the story, what you realize is that the diocesan powers-that-be simply did not feel obliged to obey the Missouri law mandating clergy to report any suspected sexual abuse to the police. I’m not suggesting that, like Becket, Bishop Finn insisted that his clergy be exempt from state criminal jurisdiction. But it’s pretty clear that he thought he was entitled–as say, the superintendent of a public school system confronted with evidence of an abusive teacher would not think himself to be–to have his own institution handle the situation.

The Church’s resistance to mandatory reporting was on display back in January, when a 1997 letter from the papal nuncio to Ireland came to light indicating that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy took a dim view of a new policy adopted by the Irish bishops requiring sexual abuse cases to be reported to state authorities. According to the letter, this occasioned “serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature.” Since then, to be sure, concessions have been wrung from Church authorities even in Rome. But the mental habits of 1700 years are not easy to break, even when the greater evils to be avoided are as plain as day.

  • Jerry Slevin

    Thank you, Mark, for this. I have discussed as a lawyer your point similarly and commend strongly to you and your readers the comment under the heading, “LET’S GO BACK FURTHER” to the excellent current column by Eugene Kennedy, “You can’t go to Rome again”, accessible by clicking on at .