Is de-frocking abusive priests the best move?

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Newly released documents show Pope Benedict XVI "defrocked" 400 priests in two years.

Newly released documents show Pope Benedict XVI “defrocked” 400 priests in two years.

While he was pope in 2011-12, Benedict XVI laicized (the proper term for de-frocking) about 400 priests who had abused minors, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.

It’s certainly news that the Vatican, however, begrudgingly, has released some statistics in this global scandal. But was it effective in creating a safer world for young people?

Not necessarily.

According story by ABC Radio religion blogger in Australia,  the retired bishop of Sydney Geoffrey Robinson, author of the book Confronting sex and power in the Catholic church, explained this it this way,

“Laicisation removes a priest from the clerical state. It removes church obligations for upkeep towards the resulting “non-priest”. But it also severs the ties of mutual responsibility between the ex-priest and the church. The church is no longer canonically responsible for the ex-priest.”

Translation — the offender is on the loose. The church has  “no authority or ability to direct or compel an offender.”

Stripping off the clerical collar will kick a priest off the church’s payroll and pension plan. But de-frocking comes at the price. No one knows, or controls, where they go next or whether they continue to molest children. Remember, it doesn’t take a legal conviction and official sex offender status for the church to choose to remove a credibly accused offender.

Survivor groups have called for more than a decade for the church to deal with abusive priests — and ex priests — by releasing their names and some dioceses have done so. Hundreds more names have come to light through documents forced into the open by court cases.

But which is better? To keep offenders under church eyes? Or to let them go out into the world, names not necessarily known?

Remember, Faith & Reason is a civil discussion zone. All views, respectfully presented, are welcome.

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  • Richard Mehlinger

    I think the answer has to be a combination of both. They should not remain on the Church plan. However, local authorities need to be notified, and the Church should do its best to keep tabs on the offender and notify any future organizations into which he might attempt to insinuate himself.

  • gilhcan

    Why is there any question? Such people as sex abusers need help, no matter what work they perform. They are certainly unqualified to be in service with others, especially vulnerable young people, at least not until they are “cured,” if a cure is possible.

    The bigger question we should be asking of our civil justice systems is why so little was done about those who were brazenly hiding the priest abusers. Those bishops were every bit as guilty as the pedophiles and ephebophiles themselves. Obstruction of justice is a crime in itself.

    Bishop James Quinn, an auxiliary of Cleveland, OH, was an early strategist of the cover-up and defender of the obstructing bishops. Until exposed, he pretended to be aghast at the sins and crimes. He was actually one of the first episcopal leaders of the cover-up. He died recently, in retirement, of repeatedly claimed “apparent natural causes.” That is just as mysterious as his dirty work in hiding clerical sexual abuse.

  • gilhcan

    Don’t forget the obligation of the church to care for those who were harmed. Ignoring that obligation has been a very serious part of the cover-up led by the bishops and their advisors.

  • Earold Gunter

    Cathy, I would argue that the questions you posed at the end are not the questions that should have been asked.

    The real question here was the one that is also you title, “Is de-frocking abusive priests the best move?”

    The answer, which should be so obvious is, absolutely not. Turning them over to the police, along with whatever information you have that compelled you to de-frock them in the first place, so they can be prosecuted, and if found guilty, punished is what the Pope should have done.

    Any action less than that only shows that the Pope regarded his personal authority higher than the laws of man, which is incredibly arrogant at best, and criminal at worst, and that he thought more of protecting the Church’s reputation than he thought of these poor children victims. Both of these actions, are incredibly void of morals. I really can’t understand how any moral human can still consider themselves as part of this Church.

    Religion is poison!

  • Judy Jones

    On Thursday at the UN interrogations, the Catholic officials claimed they are powerless over child predator priests. So if they are so powerless, why do they now admit they defrocked 400 priests for child sex crimes in 2011-2012?

    It is way past time to stop doing damage control and start telling the truth.
    Who are these 400 priests who have been defrocked for molesting children? Where are they located now? Were these predator priests reported to local law enforcements? When is Pope Francis going to fire, demote, or defrock any of the bishops/cardinals who enable and empower so many children to be sexually abused.? And when are the church officials going to help get child predator friendly laws removed so that victims can have their day in court and therefore protect kids today?

    Vatican punishment for defrocked child predators: “no jail terms and nothing to prevent an offender from raping again”— This does not protect children.

    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511,
    SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

  • THE QUESTIION: “Is de-frocking abusive priests the best move?”
    THE ANSWER: “Laicisation removes a priest from the clerical state. It removes church obligations for upkeep towards the resulting “non-priest”. But it also severs the ties of mutual responsibility between the ex-priest and the church. The church is no longer canonically responsible for the ex-priest.”
    THE TRANSLATION: “Stripping off the clerical collar will kick a priest off the church’s payroll and pension plan. But de-frocking comes at the price. No one knows, or controls, where they go next or whether they continue to molest children. Remember, it doesn’t take a legal conviction and official sex offender status for the church to choose to remove a credibly accused offender.”

    RESPONSE: Given that apparently no one knew before the Laicisation or those that did know, did nothing to prevent repetition of offenses by the same perpetrators, I think I will opt for the public disclosure and removal of the control and authority of the church’s canonically responsibility for the ex-priest. The church has failed to be a credible caretaker of child protection, of moral guidance, or of faith based leadership. It is time for the secular and civil authorities to take charge, thank you.

    That is what is happening in dear bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s homeland and that is what needs to happen all across the world. Throw the blokes out!

    Steven Spaner, SNAP Australia coordinator,

  • Ian Clark

    De-frocking a priest for abuse is tantamount, in many ways, to any company firing an employee for a misdeed. Is it effective? Well, that depends on the company’s culture. It certainly sends a message: I trust that a priest seeing that their fellow priest being fired by the pope is much akin to the shock felt by any employee when their coworker is fired by the CEO. The remaining employee may be a bit more buttoned up in the future.

    But for how long into the future? Without cultural change is likely that the same acts will creep into play in time, when the shock of the firings becomes a distant memory.

    Here, I think, the Catholic Church has actually done a lot of good. I’m not a Catholic but (generally speaking) I believe their response to this scandal has been good. The Church has ushered in vast educational programmes aimed at clergy, parishioners, students, and the congregation at large dealing with this issue and opening up far wider reporting channels, including local enforcement channels which were previously seemingly turned away from to keep things in house. It has also implemented stringent background checks for employees, including clergy, particuarly those dealing with children. Likewise, the current pope has not ignored this issue: his actions and words have not been limited to de-frocking, he s working to actively change the culture of the Church.

    In summary, if these de-frockings occurred on their own they would be good, but they would be little more than treating th symptom and not the cause. However, these acts are not happening in a vacuum. They’re part of a wider, systematic, plan for reform. I think it’s important that that is noted.

  • Earold Gunter

    Ian, To equate pedophilia and adult sexual abuse to the “misdeeds” of an employee is an insult to the victims of these crimes.

    Although I dislike your analogy let me see if I can make it closer to the actual situation so you may better understand.

    Image that a company celebration is happening, This could be a company holiday dinner for example. Imagine you take your children to it and you introduce them to your boss, and they see the respect you show him. Now imagine he takes advantage of the position of respect you have established and takes one of your children off somewhere and sodomized them.

    Now, would you consider this a “misdeed” that he should be fired for?

    I think not.

    Religion is poison!

  • Ian Clark

    Dear Earold,

    I’m not sure how helpful it is to debate semantics when you are speaking to someone who, generally, supports your opinion. What I had said was that de-frocking is equatable to firing – which, indeed, it is. It is the separation of an employee from the organization with which that was employed and a removal of that employees credentials. It is not dissimilar to a lawyer be fired from his or her firm and debarred, and so forth. Now, also note what I said in my comment: that de-frocking alone is positive, but incomplete. On its own, it doesn’t accomplish much…not for victims, not for the Church.

    In your example, I absolutely agree that the employee in question should be fired. But, also, in keeping with my initial statement, I think more needs to be done. Firing (or de-frocking as it may be) is one positive step in the process. Naturally, the employee in your scenario should be arrested, tried and punished accordingly. I hold no different standard to clergy.

    Now lets merge my statement and yours. Imagine that at Company X the CEO finds out that multiple people have been abusing multiple children at multiple company events over multiple years. How should this CEO respond? First, of course, he should fire the employees, of course. Secondly, he should report the crimes to the appropriate authorities so the appropriate action should be taken, judiciously. Third, he should recognize that his company probably has some cultural problems: perhaps in the way that they recruit, train, and manage employees and perhaps the general environment of the business. Fourth, the CEO should admit what his company has done wrong and offer sincere apologies for the harm caused. To me, this would be a thoughtful and responsible approach to addressing this problem.

    So now lets say that CEO happens to be Pope. Like any CEO, you can’t erase the actions or inactions of former CEOs, you can only lead in the now. So what has happened? First, the current Pope has de-frocked a number of priests (tantamount to firing). Second, here is where you and I probably strongly agree: the Church has largely failed to take knowledge of crimes to the authorities for persecution. This is a shame and an insult and it needs to be addressed. Third, the Church has done a fair job recognizing its systemic problem and implementing programmes designed to alter their culture and operations going forward, and we have seen some success. Fourth, there have been helpful statements by church leadership – though I would recognize that no simple apology is adequate compensation for a victim.

    So all in all, I think there is some progress. And de-frocking is a part of that progress. However, the Church still falls short of where it should be. There is much work that they still need to do.

    In terms of religion being poison, I wouldn’t go that far. Corruption is poison. Cover ups are poison. Abuse and violations of human rights are poison. But none of these things are religion. They are the abuse of power within religion.


  • Ian Clark

    Also, Earold: just to clarify, when I have used the word “misdeed” I don’t mean it marginally. I know that it most vernacular it seems to have that type of feel to it, as if to say “forgetting to pay your bill on time is a misdeed, pedophilia is a crime.” The point is taken and agreed. However, I just want to clarify that when I use the word “misdeed” I am using it in its proper sense: “a wicked or illegal act.” (Oxford Dictionary)

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  • The idea that defrocked priests are “on the loose” might be a concern, except for a couple of problems:

    1. The Church hasn’t exactly done a very good job of controlling priests who remain in that gray area between between being a practicing priest and one who’s been defrocked. For instance, the archdiocese of Hartford had, in 1993, removed Fr Stephen Foley from the ministry (as a church pastor and state police chaplain) and moved him into one of its facilities (St Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield CT) … yet from that time until 2007, apparently was completely unaware he’d been driving a police cruiser that he wasn’t legally entitled to have (and wouldn’t have, even had he remained a chaplain). He reportedly had used his cruiser as a “lure” for children. The archdiocese eventually had to settle with plaintiffs over this. Something similar was more recently revealed in the archdiocese of Newark, which failed to keep Msgr Peter Cheplic away from children after having placed him in a priests’ retirement home. The Church doesn’t have an exemplary record of using its putative control over these guys, to actually control them and prevent them from abusing kids.

    2. All sorts of other kinds of accused and/or convicted sex offenders are already “on the loose” in society. They’re supposed to be monitored by the justice system (aka the government). One can argue that the government doesn’t do a good job of that, but given examples such as that of Fr Foley, it’s hard to see how the Church is going to be any better at it.

    The best resolution for such cases is for the Church to BOTH defrock AND hand over to the justice system sufficient evidence to make sure there’s a conviction and that the ex-priest is monitored afterward by that same system.

    There are a couple reasons I think the Church avoids defrocking when it can: First, defrocking a priest is an admission a man ought never to have been ordained, and a kind of defeat. In other words, it damages the Church’s pride. Second, it violates an old doctrine that both the Roman and Eastern churches adopted in the wake of the Donatist controversy, which is that there is nothing a priest can do which invalidates his ordination. (By contrast, the Donatist position was that any clergy who’d lapsed during the Roman persecutions, were no longer priests and couldn’t perform the sacraments any more.) To defrock a priest because of something he did, even the heinous crime of abusing children, runs counter to the anti-Donatist principle, and they can’t tolerate that.

    This means the only way a priest can ever be defrocked, is if he accepts being defrocked, i.e. he requests it voluntarily. Granted, it might be possible to bully a priest into resigning even if he might not wish to, and I assume it’s probably happened a time or two. But truly adversarial defrockings just never occur. That needs to change … but of course it won’t, because the Roman Church never bends to anyone or anything.

  • Mary Frances

    Priests do not have to request laicization, PsiCop. They may do so, or they may have their clerical status removed by the Vatican. Laicizing priests does not remove them from support by the Church. There is a Canon Law which expressly states that if removal of clerical status leaves a priest indigent, it is still Church responsibility to maintain him. The Church is currently providing monthly stipends, health insurance, and even nursing home assistance to laicized priests. There are those who say that it is wrong for the Church to support sex offenders in any way. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Remember that most of these guys are in their 70’s and 80’s. Not only have they no other means of support, but they are not much of a threat to anyone. Making a bunch of old men homeless will not undo the damage they have done. Two wrongs don’t make a right. And no matter their age, they will usually not be able to enter a neighborhood surreptitiously. Most cities and/or states notify neighbors, schools, and day cares when an offender moves into the area. Granted, the system doesn’t always work as it is intended to, but what else is new?
    Another thing to remember, is that a lot of the bishops responsible for sweeping this problem under the rug are retired themselves. Some are no longer living, and their successors have inherited the resultant headaches. Hence the reforms that have taken place to put an end to this terrible situation.