Guidelines for the Protection of Priests

When the United States bishops meet in Seattle in June for their semiannual conference, they will review the implementation of the 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” It has served, for almost ten years, as the primary mechanism to safeguard minors from sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church. While the bishops should be applauded for their efforts in trying to prevent harm to children, its sloppily drafted guidelines, commonly known as the Dallas Charter, have failed to promote justice for priests or to satisfy civil authorities. The bishops’ dragnet response to the heinous crime of pedophilia has ruined the reputation of innocent priests. Its one-size-fits-all approach to any accusation of sexual impropriety has left every innocent priest vulnerable to defamation and dismissal from the ministry.

Justice demands some adjustments in the Charter for the good of the lower clergy, the bishops, and the Church. The findings of veteran attorney Donald H. Steier, who played a role in more than 100 abuse investigations, seem to support this conclusion. In a recently submitted report to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, he said,

One retired FBI agent who worked with me to investigate many claims made in the Clergy Cases told me, in his opinion, about ONE-HALF of the claims made in the Clergy Cases were either entirely false or so greatly exaggerated that the truth would not have supported a prosecutable claim for the childhood sexual abuse.

These guidelines designed to address the clergy abuse crisis have put priests in a situation that defies the standard of justice that all Americans enjoy. The imposition of administrative leave and a zero-tolerance policy in the case of accused priests have left them open to presumption of guilt. It has had deleterious effects on the innocent and clergy morale in general. What follows is a proposal to rectify their unfair treatment.


First: Any charges leveled against a priest should be subject to the same scrutiny as any civil criminal complaint. Rules similar to civil due process should be observed before a man is removed from ministry and placed on administrative leave (removal pending further investigation), unless there is irrefutable evidence against him. The present standard of forcing administrative leave is based only on a “credible” accusation, “one which has a semblance of truth to it following an initial examination of the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegation.”

But this standard is weak and broad. For example, a grand jury indicted 21 priests in Philadelphia who were previously cleared for ministry by the diocesan review board. Justin Cardinal Rigali immediately placed them on administrative leave. He asserted “that placing them on leave is not a final determination or judgment.” However, for the wrongly accused, the stigma of administrative leave is almost impossible to overcome. An accusation of past misconduct is insufficient by itself to justify a current, automatic suspension.

Second: The zero-tolerance policy for abusers in the Charter offends true justice. Civil jurisprudence has always recognized degrees in crime — for example, first-degree or second-degree murder or manslaughter. These designations should also be part of a revision of the Charter, since they are important for deciding an appropriate punishment. All cases legally designated as “sexual abuse” are not the same: There is a vast difference between sexual contact with a pre-pubescent child and one with a consenting 17-year-old. In the case of the teenager, though criminal in some states, there may be some room for rehabilitation with future ministerial parameters imposed on the offending priest. Likewise, special consideration should be given to a proven case of abuse that occurred in the distant past with no indications of recurrence. These last two cases should not necessarily merit automatic suspension from all public priestly functions or laicization (defrocking). Such actions are also inconsistent with the gospel’s call for mercy and forgiveness.

Third: A proliferation of lawsuits has been brought about by mostly spurious claims based on “recovered memories.” It has been shown that investigators sometimes suggest the possibility of past abuse, which then convinces a vulnerable person that abuse did indeed occur. This type of evidence should not be admissible; it should only be considered if there is unimpeachable corroborating data.

In their recently issued annual report prepared by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) on compliance with the Charter, the bishops claim that “while current accusations [of child abuse] are rare . . . there has been found an increase in reports of boundary violations or inappropriate behavior by priests.” Due process and probable cause will give the clarity necessary for justice. Not to do so will leave priests open to any specious claims of whatever constitutes abuse in the contemporary mindset.


Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976. He has authored or co-authored four books and over 320 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida.

  • Henry G. Ferro

    Interesting article, I am a retired judge turned trial lawyer in the North Central portion of Florida and was previously affiliated with the Catholic League.
    It is a shame that more mainstream news media don’t pick up this information and give it the same amount of time that they give the other side. Oh, I forgot, we live in 21st century America that loves to hear about these types of cases.
    Wish you the best of luck in your work.

  • One of the recurring themes I have discerned in the ongoing issue of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy (full disclosure: I am Southern Baptist, an attorney, and a man who was sexually used by my grandfather and others) is legality. In your comments I see simply another well fashioned argument for a kind of justice that denies love. The real issue for the Catholic Church is not what happened; it is the response of those entrusted with the care and safety of its children (more so given a Catholic priest’s role embodied in the word “father”) . As this scandal has unfolded, I watched your church respond first with denial, then silence, then well argued and finely parsed legal defense, and finally smatterings of some sense of actual responsibility by those who failed (or who were responsible for those who failed) in some way.

    You want to make a legal argument for a system of “justice” for your clergy to protect them. While all of what you say about sexual abuse cases is true, please know there is a profound difference between what is truth and what is legally actionable. As an attorney, I typically deal in what is actionable; as a Christian, I am compelled to deal in the truth. But more than that, as a Christian I am compelled to respond in a sacrificial love that looks more to the other than to myself. This elemental principle of love is what I have seen lacking in your hierarchy’s response.

    So what does love compel? It first means that when unalloyed truth is seen (like in Boston when it was known that certain priests were serial molesters), love requires protection (by removing the priest and turning him over to civil authorities), acknowledgment of the wrong (the biggest burden of sexual misuse of children is the compulsion to silence and shame), and moving heaven and earth to help these children into restoration. It does not mean the protection of clergy and its reputation.

    Secondly, in doubtful cases it means submission to love. One of the better books I have read about the “recovered memories” issue and a response in true Christian love is by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Cardinal Bernardin understood sacrificial love, gave it, and the young man who wronged him found truth, peace, and reconciliation. Why? Because Cardinal Bernardin responded to the man in love; he did not take refuge in the law. Instead, he took refuge in the truth and acted out of love.

    Third, love demands (and will always find) truth, not legal distinctions – if not in this world, then certainly in the next. For example, you make a distinction between sex with a pre-pubescent child and a “consenting” 17 year old. That is the kind of distinction only attorneys love. There is no distinction in love: the act before God is wrong, regardless of the age of its object and the consequence ought to be the same. Yes, there is mercy and forgiveness but neither can be demanded nor compelled as condition of calling or condition. I have truly forgiven those who hurt me (I could not extend mercy to my grandfather for he died before I dealt with the truth of me); it would have been so much easier for me to find God’s healing and forgiveness (heart, not mouth) if I had been offered the truth that only comes from love from those who hurt me or allowed the hurt to come to me. The greatest sadness I have experienced in reading about this scandal is that your church only offered hurting children oaths of secrecy; not healing truth and love.

    I am going out on a limb and responding because I believe there is a consequence to your arguments and to the church as a whole. That consequence can be stated in a very personal way: I no longer look to any pronouncement of Roman Catholic clergy as having moral force. Your church cannot speak one way when its character and integrity is called into question and another when it desires to counsel the character and integrity of others. This world needs truth in love more than ever. This post-modern age will render the church (Catholic and Baptist) irrelevant unless we, as the catholic (with a little “c”) Church make God’s love vibrant and alive so as to point to the objective eternality of Jesus Christ. We can only do that sacrificially and in truth. Joseph Bernardin understand this reality and captured the attention of the world. We have a world to save. Let us not hide away the keys to the Kingdom in legality; let us hold them and use them in the only way we can: as beacons of God’s love.

    I do pray that your church will find its way and please know I proffer my comments in love because you might find them helpful in your search for justice and truth.

    Your brother in Christ,
    Jim Lockhart

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