A Church Protocol on Sexual Offences
by Clergy and Religious
The newspapers carried varying reports of the CBCP press conference on July 8, 2002. Some were more
accurate than others. To correct some inaccuracies and misinterpretations, I would like to summarize the important points the Bishops discussed at their Plenary Assembly in Tagaytay, July 6-8, 2002.
1. Up to now Bishops have been generally following general guidelines form Canon Law and pastoral practice regarding sexual offenses by clergy and religious. These guidelines include canonical
sanctions ranging from suspension of faculties to recommendations to apply for laicization ("defrocking" in popular language). The severity of the penalty depends on the nature of the
offence. In these cases, bishops also carry out with compassion the wishes of both victim/partner/family and priest-offender for strict confidentiality and privacy in order to prevent unbearable
shame and save the reputation of all parties concerned, including their families. In all cases, psychological and material help are offered. The priest offender has a strict moral obligation
of justice to support any child born out of the relationship.
2. A Church protocol covering all cases of sexual offence would serve as a national guideline in dealing with such cases. It would
guide Church leaders in following the proper legal (civil law) and canonical (Church law) procedures necessarily dealing with criminal cases as well as with cases of consensual romantic liaisons.
Presumably the protocol would make more explicit what Canon Law might merely state in general terms. It would also provide greater correspondence with the requirements of civil law with regard to
3. Three of the more important sections of the protocol would cover (a) the comprehensive
(psychological, moral and spiritual, material assistance to be extended to victims or partners; (b) just punishment and psychological, moral and spiritual rehabilitation – if at all possible – of the offender; (c) determining the kind of sanctions to be imposed on the offender, apart from any punishment imposed by civil law in the case of crime.
4. It is obvious that if the case is criminal (e.g., offence against children or minors, rape), the sanction would be more severe. The Bishops are debating two approaches. One
approach says "one strike and you're out" as a priest. The offender would have to be defrocked. The other approach combines just punishment with the reality of healing and redeeming grace,
i.e., the possibility of radical conversion. This approach says that we must learn from the example of many saints who fell most seriously from God's grace but were healed by grace. Among these are
St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Augustine. The sanction imposed would then depend on the nature of the case, the possibility of healing, renewal and conversion, and the probability of relapse.
5. From what Bishops know about their own priests, the greatest majority remains faithful to priestly celibacy. One Bishop has said that only 10 priests of about 175 priests who have served in his
diocese for the past 20 years have been involved in sexual offence that led to canonical punishment. None was involved in criminal cases. Eight of the 10 have left the priesthood. There are
no solid statistics on the number of priest-offenders, but if one takes the above-mentioned diocese as typical, the total national number would be quite small compared to the number of priests who have
served in the past 20 years. We are dealing then with about one to five percent of the total number of priests. Would this number be above or below the average number of sex offenders in the
general lay population? "Guesstimates" prevent gross exaggeration and unrealistic minimization. But the numbers game can be deceptive and dangerous. A feeling of passivity and
"normality" can result. What is important to realize is that one priest sex offender is already one too many and creates suffering for the whole Christian community.
6. Drafting a
protocol on sexual misconduct of clergy and religious is a complicated and lengthy process. It is necessary to consult a wide range of experts from among the lay people, religious men and women, and the
clergy. We have to tap the knowledge of people who are working with or caring for victims or for partners and priest-offenders. We have to be guided by experts in psychological counseling, even
psychiatry, by lawyers (civil and canon law). A proper correspondence between civil law and canon law has to be established.
7. The Bishops have so far studied two drafts of a protocol. A
third draft incorporating revisions suggested by the July 2002 Plenary Assembly of Bishops and by further consultation with groups mentioned above and with the clergy should be finished by November
2002. Discussion on the draft would then be held at the January 2002 Plenary Assembly. After another round of consultation, a fourth draft should be ready for final consideration and approval
at the July 2003 Plenary Assembly of the Bishops.
We believe that this work of producing a protocol is a grace from God for the whole Church. It will not only deal with particular cases. By pointing out major steps for the
proper recruitment and selection of priestly and religious vocations, the needed renewal of seminary formation and the direction of ongoing formation of priests and religious, the protocol would also help
toward the prevention of sexual offences. It would also lead to the purification of the clergy, and the renewal of the Church in general.
God's call is for us, Bishops, priests and
religious, to be profoundly humble, be aware of sinfulness and the need of radical renewal, and to continually strive with God's grace toward priestly fidelity and holiness in the service of God's
people. To be faithful is to be credible.