The Sacrament of Penance

It is comforting to know that Pope Benedict last week got rid of three men who raped children.

The famously cautious (in all such cases) pontiff removed three men who served the archdiocese of Boston, long since famous for having a track record in paedophilia.

According to the Globe “The Archdiocese … identified the men as Frederick J. Cartier, Louis J. Govoni, and Frederick Guthrie [and] said in the statement that the men had asked to be removed from the clerical state. …They may no longer function in any capacity as priests, with the exception of offering absolution to the dying.”

Great theology: They can’t say Mass, but they can still forgive a repentant sinner his sins, in an emergency. And in following established recent protocol, the Church has granted their request “to be freed from their ordination,” in the interest of sparing the wretched lot a canonical trial.

Does anyone else see the treachery in this deal-making?

The Globe reported that “Cartier was ordained in 1963, was granted a leave of absence in 1979, and has not been connected to the archdiocese for more than 20 years…. According to, Cartier was accused in 2002 of molesting a 13-year-old while he was serving at a Woburn parish in the 1970s…

“Govoni, who was ordained in 1972, has not been associated with the archdiocese since 1978…. He was accused in the 1970s of sexually molesting boys at Archbishop Williams High School. He was not publicly linked to the allegations until 2003 when his personnel record was made public.In 2003, Govoni was working as a substitute teacher in Duxbury and was fired after the allegations became public, according to published reports.

“Guthrie, who was ordained in 1962, left the Boston Archdiocese in 2001. He later pleaded guilty in New Hampshire to charges that he used a computer to solicit a minor for sex in the early 2000s.”

Now their “resignations” have been solicited and accepted. They have been thrown to the American judicial system as criminals and turned in their collars–well, mostly.

But I say that’s not enough. Not only is the Church still not getting it, the Catholic faithful aren’t getting it either. Laicization is the only serious penalty the Church can impose on a priest, now that raking flesh and the rack are out of season.

But it is not the only thing the Church can do in cases of viciousness. For almost twenty years now, as the horrid facts about predatory priests have become clear, we’ve been persuaded (mainly by lawyers) that the Church needs to realize that these are crimes, not just sins. Offenders need to be tried for criminal offenses. And the penalties imposed should be the same penalties anyone should expect for foul acts committed against children. Agreed. That much is absolutely clear. Treating these acts as sins is not sufficient, especially when the punishment for sin is usually delayed until the hereafter.

The focus has been almost exclusively on treating a priest the same as anyone else. This has turned out to be a conscience-free approach to the issue, however. The Church, to save money and face, is more than happy (except for the lawsuits and bankruptcies) to throw the predators to their victims and their lawyers. It is by far the least expensive thing to do in the long term–especially prestige-wise. A Church in compliance with the law can be seen as a Church that is doing the right thing.

But it’s not.

These men should be tried publicly in ecclesiastical courts according to canon law. No option, no deal, no “May I please have your resignation, Father, sorry to ask but there have been complaints.”

No settling these cases by bureaucrats in offices whose signatures represent justice. That was Joseph Ratzinger’s job, and his signature, before he became pope.

In addition to breaking laws, they have violated their priestly vows, blasphemed against conscience, and every moral commandment the Church is supposed to defend. For those who do not think justice is winged but does have a cash register, perhaps these violations don’t amount to much. But in processing the resignations of wayward clerics over six to a dozen years on for crimes (sins) committed three decades and more ago, the Church is granting a kind of pre-absolution to the guilty. Resignation will do? They have suffered enough? The Church has done everything it can to deal with the situation, including all of the meetings the Pope has had with victims and their families? This is not resolution, or acknowledgement or ecclesiastical due process. It’s a dance. It is the Church saying, yes, of course we must turn these people in to the sheriff, and then (after a time) throw them out. But not in such a way that we are embarrassed by the throwing.

No, I do not know what is in their hearts today. And that is not relevant. Even the church’s forgiveness, as Dorothy Sayers once reminded someone, is merely activated by contrition. It’s satisfied by penance. You pay for what you broke, no matter how sorry you are. The current process insists on neither. There can therefore be no effective forgiveness. The hypocrisy continues: the Church reserves the right to forgive and to absolve on its own terms on the pretext that it invented for its own splendid isolation from the state: that it answers to a higher judge.

Dorothy Sayers

There are Church laws governing the behavior of promiscuous and abusive men; there are procedures for appointing church lawyers, tribunals, admission of evidence, witnesses and prosecution. What the Church knows is that a formal canonical trial (a trial governed by canon law) would be embarrassing and time-consuming. And the result–laicization–would be about the same. Ergo, as Catholic philosophers used to say, let’s make it short and sweet. Go straight to the penalty.

Accordingly, the matters are dealt with in diocesan offices, forwarded to the Vatican, where they are reviewed (slowly) by committees who cajole the priests into resigning.

The effect: the Church saves time, money, procedural paperwork and face. It reduces the men to the “lay state”–except not really because the theology of ordination makes the priest “a priest forever.” What it really does is strike them from the payroll and forbid them to say mass and hear confessions. It restrains them.

Benedict’s predecessor was even more cautious: he ordered then Cardinal Ratzinger to drag his feet in all such cases because of the shortage of priests. Better a bunch of bad apples than no apples at all.

Catholics need to know that the Church can do more to assuage their sense of outrage within the Church than tossing the rotters out. The “office trial” is a modern phenomenon. It happens largely on paper. The priest in question rarely sees a tribunal face to face. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Church could insist that such cases are too important to be handled behind closed doors. Transparency of its justice system is required.

It could summon the priest to appear. There can be real interrogations. Until the nineteenth century, this is the way it would have been done. Even in the sixteenth doctrinally dicey priests got their trials and bishops and interrogators were skilled investigators. Martin Luther got several, but never apparently committed crimes against humanity.

The modern rule in the case of a priest accused of serious moral lapses requires a panel of at least three judges for ordination annulment or laicization (can. 1425 §1). Appellate procedures exist, extending right up through the curia (the Pope’s cabinet) and the Pope himself (the papal Signatura, which is final). The procedure is inquisitorial. With permisison, it could be made public.

To avoid this display, the Church has been happy to hide behind the criminal law and secular justice. But this is foul play. I suspect a great many Catholics would welcome the sight of indignant bishops questioning a priest about how many boys he had raped and whether at any point in the course of events he considered that what he was doing was vile and sinful.

Boston's Cardinal Law, author of the priest-shell-game

“Vile” and “sinful” are theological terms. But the Church believes in them, or says it does. It has a method of applying justice and judgement on its own terms. Why aren’t Catholics insisting on it? Because when all is said and done, the money settlements and law suits don’t get to the heart of the hypocrisy. Not nearly. Crime is crime, but sin as Shakespeare said stinketh to high heaven. Church trials would at least be a means of ventilation.

And one final suggestion: Let them be televised on EWTN. It will triple their audience.

10 thoughts on “The Sacrament of Penance

  1. A viper’s nest of implications, like a Nuremberg for Bush.

    What would be the implications of such show trials around clandestine boy-love over the centuries, and gay-lib today? Sympathy for the Devil?

    And what cards does B17 hold? He’s still the spaciest game in town. He knows this too will pass.

    Mefears the homophobic line is what the press would take…be careful what you ask for..

  2. XVI unless he has a bastard son/heir apparent. I don’t consider this frivolous at all. Most trials are for show (have you forgotten OJ?); this would have the effect of putting the humiliation where it belongs. Obviously not a substitute for the “real thing,” but I have a vision of cigar chewing cardinals over a poker game in Rome thanking God for the American judicial system. –V Different in Belgium where the police actually invaded a bishops’ meeting and seized their files. That’s secularism.

  3. Pingback: Crucify Them? A Modest Way with Wayward Priests | The New Oxonian | Society & Culture News

  4. I agree with this proposal absolutely. Thank you, and thank you for articulating details I didn’t know. Public international humiliation would create a fresh terror for their sins and is perfectly appropriate as a proper crucifixion. I more than suspect a great many Catholics would welcome the sight of indignant bishops questioning a priest about how many boys he had raped and whether at any point in the course of events he considered that what he was doing was vile and sinful. I’m fairly positive from the few I know, that what they need is encouragement to unite and rebel, and I hope, to ensure this happens in a drastic reformation of the way things are now.

  5. rjosephhoffmann, once again from your pen, er, keyboard, an eloquent and edifying and truly enjoyable post. I suggest we past this information along to all the parishes in the U.S. asking the congregants to protest the way the miscreant priests have been deal with and demand that the Church implement its own procedures for handling “criminal” behavior of its own clergy. We could call them Protestants.

  6. Pingback: The Sacrament of Penance | The New Oxonian

  7. Great suggestions, Mr. Hoffman. As one who is divorced from TV, a televised inquisition might inspire a reconciliation — or at least a determined Internet search for a live stream!

  8. Ecclesiastical Courts are an excellent idea.But I fear they would never work because the aberrant priests would know that all evidence they admitted in these courts would be used against them in criminal proceedings. Therefore their lawyers would forbid them from testifying. In response all the Church could do is expel them from the priesthood, which is what happened anyway.

    The Ecclesiastical Courts could sit anyway but they would seem hollow and one sided if the accused never appeared, offered no defence and never cross examined the prosecution witnesses. Hearing one side only does not serve justice. Audi alteram partem.

    I think the Church should have called for a public judicial commission of enquiry empanelled by say, three high court judges. It would have full legal powers to issue subpoenas, take depositions, etc.

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