The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” is still well-suited for that task, but it is essentially negative as it does not articulate very well the priestly calling.
In June 2002, the Catholic bishops of the United States voted to approve a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The charter provided a clear procedure to address accusations of the sexual abuse of minors, and despite various criticisms, has brought a new level of transparency and objectivity to the process. The charter emerged from the context of the abuse scandal of the same period, when the failure of church authorities to protect minors from abusive priests became painfully obvious. Within that context, it was necessary to reassure the public that procedures were in effect to demand the same level of accountability from priests as from others in society. The development of the charter was heavily overshadowed not only by bad publicity, which was painful to the bishops, but also by the threat of lawsuits. For this reason, it was important that the charter be constructed in such a way that dioceses, which followed the process, would be protected from lawsuits by following a standard that left no room for negligence exposing them to civil liability.
Nine years later, the charter remains the defining document of the American bishops’ response to the issue of the sexual abuse of minors. It is still well-suited for that task. However, it has become increasingly apparent that the charter is an essentially negative document. Rather than articulating a conception of the priestly calling and the Christian life that flows from the gospel—presenting Christ’s message in all its beauty—the charter inevitably presents a view of the priesthood that is rather low and prosaic: the priest presented in the charter is a man who sometimes abuses minors, but who should aim not to do so. An extremely negative reading of the charter might lead one to conclude that the U.S. bishops simply desire that priests choose victims that are at least 18 years of age and capable of giving consent.
Anyone familiar with the gospel of Jesus Christ knows that the life to which a Christian is called aims at a much higher ideal than simply refraining from abusive behavior. Arising, as it did, from the context of the scandals of the early 2000s, it is not surprising that the charter does not go beyond the specific problem the Church was dealing with at the time. However, at this juncture of history, the world could use a more comprehensive, and evangelical, presentation of the life that the Church proposes for her priests.
At the most basic level, such a document would not depart from prohibition of immoral behavior, whether or not that behavior may present legal liability for dioceses. Instead, it must begin with the positive call to imitate Jesus Christ, in living out the evangelical councils of poverty, chastity, and obedience within the context of a life infused with the theological virtues. Jesus Christ presents a serious and challenging portrayal of the Christian life in the gospels. It is proper that the bishops present this life, and not the minimum of ethical behavior expected by civil law, as the standard to which priests are called.
A serious consideration is also needed concerning the reality that weak and flawed human beings are the ones called to this heavenly way of life. Priests, being men, will sin and will fail to live up to the life to which they are called. This is not to trivialize sin, but, instead, to reflect honestly on the human condition. Considering the reality of sin brings us to the consideration of forgiveness and healing. It also brings to mind the array of tools for defending against sin that the Church has honed over the centuries—from communal life, to obedience to superiors, to the practice of self-denial. This is a recognition of the weakness of the human condition, pointing toward the need to take steps to defend ourselves from our own weakness and disordered desires.
An authentic consideration of sin and sinfulness must also recognize the full gravity of sin. While the Church offers forgiveness to all sinners, she also expects priests to be examples of the Christian life, and true icons of Christ among its people. For this reason, the Church’s response to sinful behavior among her priests must be seriously considered and presented. It is not only illegal behavior that makes a man unfit to function as a priest. Any life which stands as a counter-witness to the Gospel should be deemed unworthy of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. In appropriate cases, suspension from priestly ministry is appropriate. Other situations call for appropriate rehabilitation, together with spiritual means, such as prayer and penance. In any case, the Church has a duty to call her priests to holiness, to give them the means to pursue it, and to call them to accountability when they stray from that pursuit.
This is not to say that our primary need is for new juridical norms to address cases of misconduct beyond the scope of civil law. It is rather to suggest that the Church’s disciplinary norms need to be presented within the context of the priestly vocation, showing these norms to be an expression of the high calling of Christ’s Gospel as it is pursued by sinful men. Such a presentation could make clearer the proper ways of addressing other cases of disordered behavior from within the context of the Gospel. It could make clear the relationship of a bishop with his priests, as one of father and brother, and not simply as an employer and an administrator. Approaching cases of clerical misconduct from within the perspective of the Gospel could lead to a consideration that is both more charitable and more just. This is not only for the benefit of the priests themselves, but also to victims of clerical misconduct, and to the Church as a whole, which is wounded by the sins of any of her members.
The scandals of the early 2000s have shown a light on priestly life, making clear some of the weaknesses of our priests and our bishops. It has also given us an opportunity to examine the priestly life in its wholeness, as it is lived out in the context of our contemporary world. The Dallas charter has given us a juridical and institutional framework to address one of the most disturbing failings of the Church and her clergy. However, by its nature, it only addresses one small portion of the question of priestly life and ministry. We are in need of a more comprehensive presentation which puts both the charter, and the scandal, in the correct context. It is my hope that the American bishops, either in the exercise of their individual magisterium, or as a body, will be able to articulate to us a vision of the priesthood that is comprehensive and just. One that is filled with the light of the Gospel, and capable of showing the priesthood in its fullness, as a share in Christ’s own ministry to his holy people.