Paedophile priests can avoid sanction under canon law, says church guide


Canon Law:A priest who abused children could escape sanction from the Catholic church if it believed he suffered from "paedophilia", according to the church's own authoritative guide on canon law. Instead of a "penal response", it urges a private talk in such cases between the bishop and the offending priest.

It also urges church authorities who discover child abuse not to turn to the church's penal process "as a first response", urging instead an informal approach. The use of formal disciplinary measures could lead to the civil authorities seeking "discovery" of the documents, it warns.

Canon Law: Letter and Spirit was published in 1995 by the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and bears the imprimatur of the then Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell. The chairman of its board of editors was Mgr Gerard Sheehy, presiding judge of the Regional Marriage Tribunal.

It was written by a group of British, Irish and Canadian canon law experts, and sets out to bring the code of canon law "to Bishops in their pastoral ministry, to priests in parishes and other such pastoral areas, to teachers and students in seminaries, to members of religious institutes and societies, not least to the laity".

Canon 1395 deals with "a cleric who has offended in other ways against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the offence was committed, by force, or by threats, or in public, or with a minor under the age of 16 years." Such a cleric is to be "punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical if the case so warrants".

The commentary then states: "The matter of imputability is of fundamental importance, and not least the third mentioned above [sex with a minor] ... Among the factors which may seriously diminish imputability in such cases is paedophilia.

"This is described as 'the act or fantasy of engaging in sexual activity with pre-pubertal children as a repeatedly preferred or exclusive method of achieving sexual excitement'. Those who have studied this matter in detail have concluded that proven paedophiles are often subject to urges and impulses which are in effect beyond their control."

It continues: "When the facts of a particular case are examined carefully, it may well emerge that the cleric did indeed commit a sexual offence, or a number of them, with a minor; as such, he may be liable to punishment by the criminal law of the State; nevertheless, because of the influence of paedophilia, he may not be liable, by reason of at least diminished imputability, to any canonical penalty, or perhaps to only a mild penalty, to a formal warning or reproof, or to a penal remedy."

A note is appended to this comment, which gives an example of "other solicitous means" that could be employed by a bishop confronted with such a problem.

The bishop "would personally, and alone, talk to the cleric and strongly advise him concerning the steps to be taken to deal with the problem, giving an assurance of his willingness to provide any reasonable help in what may necessary by way of treatment, counselling, etc. Apart from quite exceptional cases, any form of threat - which would almost certainly be counter-productive - should have no place in such an interview."

The section goes on to recommend against using the church's own penal processes in such cases as a first response. Among the reasons given is that "the premature use of the penal process could lead to a requirement by the civil authorities of 'discovery' of the documents used in the canonical process."

Referring to this book on RTÉ radio yesterday, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, said: "It made it very, very clear that the church regarded itself as in a position not to reveal to the civil authorities what was going on and to deal with these matters in a way which most of us now would regard as completely unacceptable."

Last night a Dublin theologian, who did not wish to be named, said the book was "not a definitive or authoritative commentary on canon law". He said it was a commentary and had no "authoritative value". Cardinal Connell's imprimatur only indicated nothing in it was contrary to Catholic teaching and did not imply the cardinal agreed with its content.