Canon Law Expert Speaks on Abuse
The Rev. William J. King Detailed How the Church Deals with Clergy Accused of Misconduct

By Michael McAuliffe
Springfield Union-News [Springfield MA]
April 2, 2003

SPRINGFIELD - In light of the national scandal of clergy sexual abuse that has rocked the Roman Catholic church, an expert in canon law came to the city yesterday for a detailed presentation on church law.

The Rev. William J. King, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., spoke on "Criminal Law in the Catholic Church" before about 70 people at the Bishop John Marshall Center. Among those in attendance was the Most Rev. Thomas L. Dupre, bishop of the Springfield diocese.

King said most church laws deal with the "internal conduct" of ministries.

"Most of the laws of the church don't really affect the people in the pews," said King, who during a presentation that lasted a little more than an hour, detailed how the church deals with clergy accused of misconduct in ways both strikingly similar to and radically different from the civil courts familiar to most people.

For example, the finding in a case against a priest accused of sexual misconduct could be guilty, not guilty or not proven, he said. In addition, protection from double jeopardy does not apply, meaning that a finding of not guilty does not preclude the reopening of a case years later if compelling new evidence comes to light.

King said there is no right to cross-examination under church law, but that opportunity is provided to rebut accusations in writing.

"Church courts operate mostly in writing," he said.

In addition, King said church law is such that the accused is always entitled to a defense and cannot simply be summarily removed.

"Priesthood ... is not a disposable commodity," King said. "You cannot hire and fire a priest at will."

"Sinner or not, he is a priest and will carry that with him into eternity," King added.

Yesterday's event was sponsored by the Saint Thomas More Society of Western Massachusetts and the Hampden, Berkshire and Franklin County bar associations. The society is made up of Catholics involved in the practice of law and includes lawyers and judges.

King also said that as a result of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the church has taken corrective action and pledged not to let such a thing happen again, and that bishops who ignore or are dilatory in following church law will be held accountable.

"I don't believe the people in the pews will ... forget this very quickly, and I truly believe accountability does exist," he said.

King was ordained in 1983 and studied canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He has given the presentation he made yesterday about 10 other times, starting in Manchester, N.H., in September. Michael McAuliffe can be reached at

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