Forgiveness from Sin, but Not Pardon for Crime
Redemption Defense in Sex Abuse Cases Is Defective

By Richard P. McBrien
National Catholic Reporter
May 16, 2003

Various U.S. Catholic bishops have been excoriated during the past year, not only in the media but by their own laity, for having transferred sexually abusive priests from parish to parish without apparent regard for the safety of other potential victims.

When sued for their behavior, some bishops have resorted to a theological argument, namely, that central to the church's faith is its belief in the power of redemption and the forgiveness of sins.

In a deposition this past January, Cardinal Bernard Law, the resigned archbishop of Boston, invoked this very belief in "the resurrection of new life" to justify his reassignment of a predatory priest to a new parish.

Since then, the issue of redemption has played a key role in the archdiocese's legal argument that the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom protects it from liability in the 500 civil lawsuits it faces for having moved sexually abusive priests from parish to parish. In mid-March, the archdiocese unsuccessfully appealed a decision by Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney, who had refused to dismiss the suits on the basis of that theological argument.

Lawyers for the Boston archdiocese argued that a victory for plaintiffs would require the court to "modify the church's understanding of forgiveness and grace." The church, they reminded the court, believes as a matter of faith that people can change -- even the most hardened sinner.

Therefore, if the courts reject this theological justification for the reassignment of abusive priests to another parish, the courts are, in effect, interfering with the church's right to believe and to teach regarding matters of faith and morals.

This rationale has apparently impressed a few Catholic legal scholars, like the dean of Boston College's Law School, John Garvey, who expressed surprise that "the public reaction to the church's defense has been as skeptical as it has been," given the fact that "confession is a sacrament and forgiveness is part of the sacramental system."

One is more surprised by the fact that Garvey is surprised, and that he misses such an obvious defect in the church's defense.

Of course, it is the church's belief and teaching that every contrite sinner can be forgiven, no matter how heinous the sin. No court can order the church to withhold absolution from even the most hardened criminal.

It is also the constant teaching of the church that redemption is available to everyone, and that resurrection to new life is always possible because of the infinite power and mercy of God. No court in the land can require the church to excommunicate such a person in order to deter such behavior by other Catholics.

However, the church's theological argument misses a crucially important point. To be forgiven from a sin does not carry with it pardon for a crime nor a guaranteed return to one's former employment. A murderer who repents and confesses may be restored to the state of grace, but not to freedom.

If a bank discovers that an employee has embezzled millions of dollars, the bank is not required to reassign the embezzler to another branch just because he has gone to confession and been absolved of his sin. Redemption and resurrection to new life have nothing to do with job security.

And when the sin is also a crime, there is a legal obligation on the part of the employer to report the crime to the appropriate civil authorities, in accordance with state or federal law. If, however, a bank were to choose not to press charges, it would still have an obligation to compensate its customers for any financial losses suffered because of the crime.

Some victims of sexual abuse have refused to testify against a predatory priest, even though there was credible evidence of his guilt. But that did not exempt the church from its moral responsibility to remove the priest from ministry in order to protect potential victims, nor did it exempt the church from its legal responsibility to report such abuse to the civil authorities, if required to do so by law.

And under no circumstances would church officials have been exempted from the obligation of warning a future parish or diocese of a priest's record of abusive behavior. But that is exactly what has happened, again and again, to the point where we now have one diocese, San Bernardino, suing the Boston archdiocese for having hid a priest's history of sexual molestation when approving his transfer to California.

The lawsuit charges Boston with "misrepresentations and suppression of information" and "active misconduct and negligence."

Redemption and forgiveness have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Fr. Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.


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