Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Should church leaders reconsider their zero tolerance policy for pedophile priests?

Thomas Guarino’s January 4, 2011 essay entitled, “The Priesthood and Justice” argues against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB’s) zero tolerance policy on pedophile priests.  In his essay Gaurino, a priest and theologian, presents several points:

1.  He questions holding priests accountable who aren’t caught until decades after they violated children.  He wonders if holding such men accountable under the zero tolerance policy conflicts with the gospel’s instruction to forgive them “seven times seventy” times. 
2.  He asks about the zero tolerance policy’s theological foundation and suggests the policy contradicts gospel themes of reconciliation and grace.  Furthermore, he believes laicizing a pedophile priest violates the grace received in holy orders.  He implies that no sin, i.e., departure from grace, justifies revoking or nullifying graces received through holy orders.  More simply stated, he thinks a pedophile priest’s “holy calling” entitles him to special treatment when he sins.
3.  He suggests that priests need pay increases because if dismissed under “zero tolerance” most priests lack marketable skills to get a job.
4.  He complains that bishops are supposed to be like fathers or brothers to priests but that priests don’t feel it’s very fatherly or brotherly when bishops hold them accountable. He says that such threats of accountability have, “the disastrous effect of eroding Catholic doctrine”.  He continues stating, “Bishops must protect young people—and they have, undoubtedly, put their hands firmly to that plow—but they should not risk doing so at the cost of undermining or trivializing the sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Mr. Guarino’s points greatly disturb me.  I purposely call this priest “Mr.” rather than “Fr.” because a true father who has children likely would be sickened by his arguments.  Mr. Guarino’s perspectives on parent/child relationships remind me of my daughter shouting to me, “You’re not my friend” after I reprimanded her once when she was three years old.  Most mature people realize sometimes good parenting requires temporarily suspending friendly interactions in the interest of undertaking loving parental ones.

A father, a real one, a good one, forgives and holds his children accountable, even when they don’t like it.  For example, a father, who insists his son financially support a child conceived out of wedlock, can both forgive the son and hold him accountable.    

A father also has a holy and sacramental calling as a parent.  In his vocation as a father, he sacrifices of himself for the sake of his children.  Mr. Guarino suggests that ecclesial “fathers” should care for children but not at the expense of sacrificing priestly vocations.  Caring for children is a true father’s vocation not something that might compete with it.

Mr. Guarino advises the church to consult scripture and dogma for guidance in dealing with accused priests.  He also suggests that priests receive pay raises because most priests don’t have employable skills to obtain secular employment if they are laicized due to the zero tolerance policy.  Yet, scripture indicates the early apostles were employed in occupations such as fishermen, tax collectors and tent makers.  St. Paul even continued to work as a tent maker during his apostleship so that he was not a financial burden to others. Indeed Jesus explicitly told the original twelve apostles to preach without cost (MT 10:8-9).  

Why do so many of today’s apostles lack marketable skills?  Do they actually lack marketable skills or do they fear entering secular employment where accountability regularly occurs?  Should we more deeply reflect upon Jesus asking gainfully employed people to become apostles rather than employing as apostles the otherwise unemployable?  Is there value in insisting priesthood candidates have life experiences such as working secular jobs before entering the seminary?

Theology and dogma also teach that reconciliation involves more than extending forgiveness.  Reconciliation requires admission of wrong-doing, expression of sorrow, willingness to do penance, restitution for wrongs, and a commitment to change behavior.  Mr. Guarino seems to suggest that all reconciliation steps be skipped except forgiveness when it comes to pedophile priests.  Wouldn’t that violate the church’s rich teachings about reconciliation?

Mr. Guarino also calls the zero tolerance policy into question because he doesn’t want any priests to suffer from false accusations.  How many priests actually have been accused falsely and how does that number compare to the number of guilty ones who operated with impunity? 

Furthermore, referring to dogma as Mr. Guarino suggests we see that a priest acts in the person of Christ.   Scripture says Christ submitted himself to a false accusation and died as a result.    Why would priests who act in persona Christi fear the risk of false accusations? 

Clergy not only operate in persona Christi, they also are apostles.  Jesus told his apostles and disciples that they would suffer false accusations and persecutions (MT 5:10-11, MT 10:17-23), to “turn the other cheek” (MT 5:39) and not worry about one’s defense when brought before authorities (LK 12:11-12, MT 10:19).  Do we think Jesus was joking?

Obviously, I do not advocate people suffering false accusations.  But I think real parents err on the side of protecting their children not themselves.   Priests are the bishops’ “children” but so are literal children.   Mr. Guarino seems to suggest bishops favor protecting their priestly children over protecting their literal ones.   Or do bishops mostly favor protecting church image and financial assets rather than priestly or literal children?


  1. The least of my concerns would be whether these Priests will find a job after being found guilty of molesting children. These men have used and abused their position to falsely gain the trust of young and impressionable children.

  2. Forgive me. I am ignorant. Just who in the world is Mr. Guarino that anyone should listen to his drivel? The only work that these pedophile priests should be doing after being convicted is working on a "chain gang".

  3. He's a priest and professor of theology at Seton Hall University, a Catholic University. He is molding the minds of young Catholics, teaching theology. He wrote that essay and published it in "First Things", an inter-religious, non-partisan think-tank periodical.

  4. His concern was that bishops are now being so worried about dealing with pedophiles that innocent men are being ditched from the priesthood. Also organizations like "Opus Bono Sacerdotii" (For the good work of priests) think that it's more dangerous to society if pedophile priests are defrocked....that the church can keep tabs on them if they remain a priest.... It's very questionable if the church has a track record of successfully keeping pedophiles from harming others. In society, that's done via prison and registered sex offender lists. But, people like Gaurino and groups like Opus Bono Sacerdotii think it's wrong to ever defrock a priest...that their holy orders are too holy to ever revoke. It's certainly a different take than that of most laity or the victims.

    I'm not sure how many innocent priests have actually been defrocked. I'm not sure how many guilty ones have even been defrocked. The John Jay report from 2004 indicated something like 31 priests of the thousands accused were actually defrocked.

    Basically, some priests feel the bishops are throwing priests under the bus. I guess the question is, are the accused receiving due process or are the bishops assuming guilt and abandoning them. I would hope that the accused receive due process. But, the church is not known for clear, open (non-secretive) legal processes, or personnel processes.

    Here's a link to Opus Bono's Frequently Asked Questions. It was difficult for me to read them. The people who ask these questions operate in a very different ethos and world than me.