Canon Law and Current Scandal

In the 1980s a new Code of Canon Law was developed to assist Catholics, specifically including laity, in Church justice in the modern era.

Yet it seems to have little effect in the current abuse scandal, and alleged cover ups.

My diocese is getting ripped to shreds: laity and sometimes clergy constantly seek recourse through the secular media, and other secular avenues. The bishop and perhaps a couple others in the chancery, have been accused of bypassing standard canon law procedures in other ways.

Why has the Code of Canon Law apparently been so useless here? Or has it been useful in some confidential ways I don’t know about?

I attach an unofficial guide developed by a private organization for readers who may be interested.


Because the Church doesn’t follow canon law itself. The laity aren’t stupid, and what they’re angry about is the hypocrisy.

Contrast the situation with the clerical abuse scandal with the accusation that a local teacher has been abusive to his/her students for years. The school district will immediately suspend the teacher while they investigate, and if the investigation proves the allegations true, will take even stronger action including criminal charges and a permanent notation on that teacher’s record. The school district has followed its own rules, and people will be satisfied.

If the hierarchy actually followed similar procedures rather than simply trying to hush up and cover up, the laity wouldn’t be so angry. The discovery that this has been going on for generations is what transformed that anger into rage. Had the local school district been doing the same thing, it’d also get ripped to shreds.

Had they actually followed the canon laws forbidding abuse, the hierarchy wouldn’t be in this situation. But what use is a canon law that clearly means nothing except when the Church arbitrarily and inconsistently obeys it?


Currently in most parishes, priests who have a credible allegation of abuse against them are suspended immediately pending investigations. I have personally seen at least two or three cases of this in the last 5 years. I have also seen this in cases where the priest is accused of some other crime not involving child sexual abuse (embezzlement, possession of narcotics, etc).

The vast majority of situations where priests were allowed to continue or were just moved to another parish happened in the distant past. At the time priests were being allowed to evade punishment on those matters, there were also plenty of public school teachers and people in other walks of life not being removed or suspended or punished for sexual abuse. The criminal justice system did not have laws in place to deal with the problem very well, children and teens often weren’t believed, and there was no mandated reporting like there is today. The development of stronger rules for the public schools has gone hand in hand with the development of stronger rules for the priesthood.


The 1990s were 20 to 30 years ago. Many of today’s adults were not even alive then. I would hope our society has advanced in that time.

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Be careful, it is easy to project today’s standards and practice to the past. In the 80’s and before, romance between student and teacher was the thing of pop songs and romance novels. When there was a sexual event between student and teacher, if it were a male teacher with female student, he might be asked to resign and left with a letter of recommend to his new job. If it was a female teacher with a male student, it was not considered any thing at all. That was the way the world worked.

I watched “Madama Butterfly” two weeks ago. The main character is a 15 and she marries a military officer. In “Manon”

Look at the timeline, understand how practices have changed.

Take a look at the decades when the crisis scandal events took place.

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It was still abusive, and any teacher or school administrator could have told you so even then. (Teacher’s kid here, grew up in the 80s; I remember incidents where things actually happened and they were far from romanticized.)

People who do not insist that the Church hierarchy follow its own rules, but rather issue apologias and say “but it’s different now,” are part of the problem. The laity have rights under canon laws, but they are routinely ignored and trampled upon and have been for generations. Our rage at that is justifiable.

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I know there are many important issues related to sex abuse, and there have been many threads in those. I urge people to focus in this thread on the Code of Canon Law.

That is my focus. The reason the Code of Canon Law is fundamentally useless is because the Church hierarchy only follows it when it’s convenient for them. The laity’s rights might be codified, but they aren’t respected, and when the laity tries to address that issue they’re dismissed and told to go away rather than being fairly heard. That’s why they seek recourse through secular means.

If the Code were actually enforced fairly and justly, they’d have no need to do so.

We cannot paint an entire institution, the public school system, private school system, the Catholic Church, etc. with a broad brush.

There are always going to be individual cases that are handled exceptionally and others that are complete disasters, these anecdotal cases do not mean everyone.

Since the John Jay report, every Diocese has a policy in place (read yours on your Diocese website). The mere breath of accusation of a priest now means he is removed/suspended, and even if found innocent, he has such a scarlet A that he will never be able to function at a parish/school level again.

Yes, human beings still commit crimes/sins, even priests. I have witnessed first hand how a true narcissistic priest can pull the wool over the eyes of people, those who know are kept silent in fear. Yes, it is horrible, but, in a world with humans, horrible things are going to happen.

The percentage of credible accusations has plummeted since the JJR policies were implemented.

You speak of the tragedy in Indiana. Back when it happened, I did not read about her writing to the CDF, would you have a link that has that evidence?

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I’m glad you believe that. My own experience is rather the contrary, and so are those of the Catholics who tend to leave. When the Church does not follow its own rules, it loses all moral authority in most people’s eyes. That is why Canon Law is so useless these days. The Church has no credibility and quite franky, most laity won’t even believe they’ll follow it.

Rules mean nothing without enforcement. The problem isn’t the Code of Canon Law. It’s the way it gets twisted and reinterpreted constantly to the detriment of the laity.

I would dispute the claim that the Church doesn’t follow canon law itself.

And I would agree that the laity aren’t stupid…with a caveat.

I don’t think that the laity understands canon law anymore than Americans understand the Constitution.

Canon law (like Constitutional Law) is often maligned or misunderstood by us non Canon (and Constitutional) Lawyers.

And, I agree that this leave the laity angry…because often, personal opinion, even common knowledge, does not decide the judicial systems of Canon or Constitutional Law…if it did, there would be no need for Canon Lawyers, Constitutional Lawyers, the Vatican, or the Supreme Court.

It’s possible that when Canon Law works successfully, few people notice it. A major problem prevented does not make any headlines. The scandal had hit some US dioceses far less than others.

I would be curious if anyone familiar with Canon Law is aware of any successes in this area.

I don’t think you or any other single individual can speak for all laity, when there are billions of laity out there.

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To come back to the OP’s original question about canon law, I can make a few general observations that apply to law in general.

First, codes of laws need to be enforced. If you have a law on the books, but the authority in charge chooses to not enforce the law for some reason, then it’s going to be meaningless.
Authorities often choose not to enforce laws, or to selectively enforce laws, because they don’t want to admit that bad things are happening in their jurisdiction, or they don’t want a public record of bad things happening on their watch, or because they are protective of some person or group of people who would be badly affected by enforcement, or even because they are themselves guilty.

An example would be a police chief who knows he has a few corrupt cops but doesn’t want to bust them because he doesn’t want the newspapers reporting that corruption happened in his department, or because he himself has done some bad things in the past that he wants to cover up, or because he can’t believe that officers he knows as good people actually did corrupt things.

In some cases there are even legal loopholes to get out of enforcing certain laws.

Authorities will only enforce these types of internal laws when they either feel very strongly from a moral standpoint that it’s important to enforce them, even at the cost of bad publicity or losing some headcount, or else when the consequences of not enforcing are clearly going to be worse than the consequences of enforcing - such as huge money judgments against the institution, or a prison term for the chief in charge who didn’t enforce.

In any event, when a internal governance law is changed, it usually takes time and a few examples of what not to do, to change the internal culture of an organization. You don’t just see an overnight change with everybody suddenly accountable and doing the right thing. We are seeing this kind of internal culture change now in US dioceses as bishops, many of them older, are suffering consequences of past failures to report or address situations. Their successors going forward will likely be more careful because they saw what happened in the end to the past bishop who didn’t enforce, and they see the bad effects on their diocese in terms of eroded trust.

With respect to sexual abuse in particular, I’ve seen a whole lot of older people who just could not get their minds around the fact that somebody they thought of as an apparently decent person could also have this problem where they were abusing underage teens and children. Denial is a real thing. I’d say we only started getting past that as a society in about the last 20 years, partly because the older generation who were the biggest deniers has been dying off.

But the Code specifically authorizes recourse to a higher level, and still higher levels, if the bishop chooses to ignore complaints. Did the Code “fail” because people never used it?

Or did people actually follow the Code, and higher authorities dropped the ball? If so, which authorities? Metropolitan, or Papal Nuncio, Vatican official, or pope?

My guess is that Canon Law procedure was rarely initiated, but I don’t know.

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I’d say it’s a good guess on your part.
Your average victim or lay witness is not going to be a canon law expert. They might have to find competent legal counsel. The competent legal counsel might very well have to be paid. Canon lawyers don’t exactlly grow on trees.

Victims of sexual abuse may have a hard time dealing with onerous legal processes where they would have to tell their story over and over. They just want something done. If they go through the process at the first and maybe the second levels, which would be to tell the pastor and if nothing happens, tell the bishop, they’re likely to just throw up their hands.

In the event you have a lay witness who wasn’t a victim, that person is highly likely to be some employee of the diocese such as a teacher or staff member. Or it could be a member of a religious order who isn’t clergy. In all these cases, I can see the diocese in the past not being thrilled to receive these types of reports and letting the employee, or the member of a religious order, know that.

I can see all kinds of possibilities that an action might be “setlled” or someone convinced to go away, or even convinced that something will be done and then something is not done.

What really needs to happen in situations of credible allegations of underage sexual abuse is that the offender gets immediately suspended and civil law enforcement gets called to take it from there.

I can see the attached canon law procedure being great for a situation such as a church closure that the parishioners want to contest, or better yet multiple church closures where a whole bunch of parishioners band together, pay a canon lawyer and see this process through for as long as it takes. It looks very unhelpful for an individual abuse victim.


Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gives an overview of the difficulties within the Code of Canon Law concerning clergy sex abuse in his essay “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.” Apparently, defendants were given guaranteed protection for their rights to such a degree “that convictions were hardly possible,” despite the need for balance in the protection of the Faith. In fact, this “guarantorism” was so dominant, Benedict XVI, then the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Pope John Paul II, overtook responsibility for cases of sexual abuse by the clergy in defense of the Faith away from the Congregation of the Clergy, which otherwise was responsible for prosecution. Justification for these measures was as follows:

This arrangement also made it possible to impose the maximum penalty, i.e., expulsion from the clergy, which could not have been imposed under other legal provisions. This was not a trick to be able to impose the maximum penalty, but is a consequence of the importance of the Faith for the Church. In fact, it is important to see that such misconduct by clerics ultimately damages the Faith.

For the full overview, you can read the relevant portion of the Pope Emeritus’ essay at the Catholic News Agency (Part II, Section 2):


I recently had the opportunity to take a graduate course in Canon Law at our seminary. The Code was rewritten before the scandal broke and therefore is silent with the exception of a couple articles dealing with clergy behavior. In light of the last few years the Code needs to be revised to deal with the scandal.


This seems consistent with what the Pope Emeritus had said in his essay. He notes that a new revised Code was approved in 1983, and “[t]he question of pedophilia . . . did not become acute until the second half of the 1980s. In the meantime, it had already become a public issue in the U.S., such that the bishops in Rome sought help, since canon law . . . did not seem sufficient for taking the necessary measures.”

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I find it telling not only that Canon Law is still inadequate to address sexual abuse, but also that Pope Benedict sees this problem as stemming from things that went on in the 1960s - which arguably didn’t help the situation, but it’s pretty clear that a percentage of priests were committing underage sexual abuse for decades before the 1960s/ Vatican II rolled around. There are priests on bishop-accountability who have credible allegations of sex abuse in the 1950s, and other credible reports of priests who were abusing children and teens in schools and orphanages in the decades prior to that. I strongly suspect that young religious sisters were also abused.

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