Going to Court in the Church


WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 17, 2010 ( The proceedings of a canonical penal trial take place under the mantel of the "pontifical secret," but a one-day seminar sponsored by the U.S. bishops gave a look at what goes on during such a trial.

An overview of the details in a penal proceeding as established in canon law were explained by Father Lawrence DiNardo of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the May 25 event.

Father DiNardo was the last of four canon lawyers who presented at the seminar various aspects of their field, as it relates to clergy sexual abusers.

Videos and texts of the four speakers' presentations, the questions-and-answers sessions, and a panel discussion are available online. ZENIT has this week provided commentaries on the talks.

Father DiNardo's address aimed to simplify canon law terminology and give an outline of some of the most relevant documents that, coupled with the actual Code of Canon Law, give policy and procedure for dealing with clergy sexual abusers.

He also illustrated a potential course of events that could take place from the moment a bishop has received an allegation that a priest or deacon has sexually abused a minor.

Getting the facts

The first stage of the process is explained in Canon 1717 and is called the prior investigation -- prior, that is, to the trial itself.

The bishop himself, or more usually, someone delegated by him, sets about determining if the allegation is valid: if a crime has been committed and if it is actionable. Father DiNardo explained that sometimes an allegation will fold in this first step. By way of example, he recounted a case in which the priest accused had never even worked in the parish where the alleged crime was to have taken place, and a very preliminary investigation showed the allegations to be false.

The lawyer also explained the role of diocesan review boards, not established by canon law, but which enter into the process at this point.

If the case is valid, that is, the allegation has a sufficient degree of credibility, then it is turned over to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That Holy See office will decide how to proceed: to begin a judicial trial, or an administrative proceeding, or for some cases (particularly if the priest has admitted to the crimes or a civil trial has found him guilty, or in other grave circumstances), the doctrinal congregation can petition the Holy Father "ex officio" for the dismissal of the priest from the clerical state.

Father DiNardo noted that during this preliminary investigation, the faculties of the accused priest can be (at least temporarily) suspended. During the panel discussion following his talk, it was explained that the exact timing of that possible suspension often depends on agreements with civil authorities, and the effort to avoid hampering civil investigation.

Going to court

The Pittsburgh lawyer explained what a tribunal is like if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decrees that a penal procedure, a judicial trial, should be held.

The tribunal itself is made up of three judges -- one presiding judge and two collegiate judges. There is a promoter of justice (similar to a prosecuting attorney in a civil system), an advocate or advocates for the accused. There can also be auditors -- people delegated by the judge to hear testimony. And there is a notary entrusted with ensuring that all the acts of the trial are authenticated.

For the tribunal to be formed for a particular case, the accused has the right to approve the members. And then the tribunal sets about establishing what is the issue at hand.

Declarations from parties and witnesses are heard, but not in the method of examination and cross-examination that civil courts use, Father DiNardo clarified. Instead, the promoter of justice develops the questions, and the judge determines what will be asked.

The priest explained that it is an investigative, not adversarial process, "not one lawyer trying to out-lawyer the other. It's really a judge or judges seeking the truth."

Expert witnesses (such as psychologists or psychiatrists) and documentary evidence can also be presented.

At the concluding state, the promoter or justice and the advocate for the accused present briefs. The latter has the opportunity to offer a rebuttal to the presentation of the former.

Finally, the tribunal makes its decision, and determines the penalty.

Better or worse

The seminar participants concluded the day with a brief question-and-answer session directed to all four panel participants.

The lawyers further clarified the reason for the pontifical secret, saying that it is not to "keep things a secret," but to ensure that testimony is not polluted by interaction among witnesses. They recalled that even in civil legal proceedings, a similar demand of "secrecy" is made.

Though the process might seem cumbersome, Father DiNardo proposed that it is neither better nor worse than civil proceedings. And he offered his own experience that processes can be completed in as few as seven months or as many as more than 18 -- other lawyers, he said, could give cases of even faster or slower trials.