Church exercise in damage control

Cardinals' statement steers clear of liability


The statement issued by the American cardinals at the conclusion of this week's meeting in Rome is, when stripped of its theological language, the sort of document any institution in crisis might issue as an exercise in damage control.

While canon lawyers who are experts in church doctrine surely played a role in drafting the statement, it is not known whether lawyers retained to protect the church against civil and criminal actions played a part.

In any event, the statement resembles the sort of full-page advertisement a company might place after an incident of product tampering or the discovery of corporate malfeasance.

The church has to walk a fine line, said Kenneth E. Goodpaster, who teaches business ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis: "We've created an environment where it's difficult to be candid because the plaintiffs' bar is coming at you and doing `gotcha.'"

Legal experts and lawyers on both sides of cases involving accusations of sexual abuse by priests agreed that the statement includes almost nothing that will increase the church's civil or criminal liability or be of much use to its adversaries.

The main statement recognized that "the sexual abuse of minors is rightly considered a crime by society and is an appalling sin in the eyes of God."

It also spoke of "a need to convey to the victims and their families a profound sense of solidarity and to provide appropriate assistance in recovering faith and receiving pastoral care."

It also drew two potentially important distinctions.

Two paragraphs after acknowledging that all sexual abuse of minors is criminal and sinful, the statement distinguished between "true pedophilia" and the abuse of adolescents: "Even if cases of true pedophilia on the part of priests and religious are few, all the participants recognized the gravity of the problem."

This point could allow plaintiffs' lawyers to assert that the church has failed fully to recognize, even at the height of the crisis, the damage done to older children by abusive priests.

Patrick J. Schiltz, who has defended churches of several denominations in cases involving accusations of sexual abuse, said the passage about "true pedophilia" was in all likelihood a digression meant to appease a single cardinal.

"These are fussy Vatican bureaucrats," he said, "who are making sure, like a chairman of a committee in Congress, that their three lines are in the final report."

The distinction that has drawn more attention is between "notorious" conduct, involving "serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors," and less serious conduct, involving perhaps a single instance of abuse. That distinction is important in canon law, and it has implications in the canon courts.

An offense is graver for purposes of canon law, which is concerned with theological matters, when it is "notorious" and causes "scandal" because the offense might lead others to lose their faith and separate themselves from the church, Schiltz said.

He said it was a misreading of the statement to assume that the cardinals had minimized the wrongfulness of all but the worst conduct for purposes of the criminal law.

Still, he said, "It's a canonical distinction," adding, "It's an absolutely idiotic thing to put into this kind of statement."

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