Some Factors Why Clerical Abuse Persists in the Catholic Church

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1. Introduction

Why many cases of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church remained unresolved  is often attributed to the conspiracy of bishops, supervisory priests, and erring clerics. With this collusion, the reporting and prosecution of cases become difficult and tedious. Cover-up as well as mere transferring of assignment, instead of bringing the accused to justice, seem to be the common response of bishops in dealing with criminal abuse of secular priests such as sexual abuse. Cardinal Law who resigned as Archbishop of Boston on 11 April 2002, for instance, admitted that he just transferred pedophile priests to new parishes despite knowing that they are guilty [1]. Clerical abuse has caused scandals and severe damage to the Church not only spiritually but also financially. Dioceses in the United States, for example, have paid out more than US$2 billion in compensation claims. In July 2007 alone, the Los Angeles diocese paid out US$660 million to 500 victims. In Canada 81 victims at the Mount Cashel Orphanage were paid US$16 million in 2003[2]. Thus, one may ask: Why is clerical abuse persisting in the Catholic Church?

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2. Canonical Standards

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The main legal normative standard in the Catholic Church is the Code of Canon Law. Canon law is the name for the law of the Catholic Church that includes the Code of Canon Law (CCL) and many other canonical documents issued by Popes, Roman Congregations, Bishops’ Conferences and Bishops. “Whereas moral, sacramental and even pastoral theology can only indicate what is fitting and proper conduct, leaving it to each faithful to make responsible use of his freedom to act accordingly” (Achacoso, 2010, p.188). But Canon Law is said to stipulate what is juridically binding and hence owed if not outright enforceable” (Ibid). However, most of the canonical provisions, unlike the state’s penal code, deal with church administration, general norms, hierarchical structure, institutes of consecrated life, and only a few concerning criminal offenses of the clergy such as sexual abuse of minors that require penal punishments.[3]

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One of these provisions include canon 1395 of the 1983 CCL explicitly provides that sexual contact with a minor qualifies as one of four classifications of sexual offenses for which a priest may be permanently removed from the clerical state. The other three grounds include any form of coerced sex, a public offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, and continued open concubinage with a woman after an official warning. Permanent removal from the clerical state constitutes one of the most serious penalties contemplated by canon law. Canon 1389 of the 1983 Code also imposes a penalty including deprivation of ecclesiastical office, for bishops or officials who abuse church power or omit through culpable negligence to perform an act of ecclesiastical governance. “A bishop who fails to employ the appropriate provisions of canon law in a case of sexual abuse of a minor is liable to penal sanctions imposed by the Holy See” (Coughlin, 2003, p.980).

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The penalties under CCL against clerical abuse are of two types: expiatory and medicinal. On the one hand, the expiatory penalties aim to deter offenders, to restore right order and to repair the harm caused to the community. They include removing a parish priest because of sexual abuse. Medicinal penalties, on the other hand, are aimed at reforming the offender. They include penalties such as excommunication, interdict, and suspension. Unless they are automatic penalties, the offender must be warned first and told if he carries out this action then he will be suspended (c. 1347) (Daly, 2009, p.34). An excommunication (c. 1331) is the harshest penalty in the Catholic Church. This means that the priest is cut off or expelled from the Church. This sanction is usually reserved for serious cases such as a priest marrying a woman in civil court without authority. An interdict (c.1332) is a medicinal censure that “prohibits a person from ministerial participation in and reception of the sacraments and sacramentals.” A suspension (c.1333) prohibits the clergy from “some or all acts of the power of orders” and the “power of governance,” (such as performing the sacraments or administering Church property), or from “some or all rights or functions attached to their offices” (such as witnessing marriage [4].

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Despite the strict provisions of some canons of CCL against clerical abuse, canonical penalties are only seen by the Church as a last resort when all other pastoral efforts to help the erring individual by warnings, instruction etc. have been exhausted and have failed (c. 1341). Pope Francis’ address to the Roman Rota, the Church ecclesiastical court, for instance, exhorted canon lawyers to consider, above all, mercy and compassion, when applying canonical sanctions to specific cases in the Church (Mckenna, 2015, p.19). This ecclesial attitude towards mercy rather than strict legality implies that the legal standard is not the absolute normative standard in the Church. It is then only one of the many normative criteria to consider when judging misbehavior of priests. Other non-canonical and informal ecclesial norms that do not prescribe penal sanctions must first be explored by bishop-judges or supervisory priests who are handling abuse cases before turning over abusive priests to the civil authority.

2. Non-Canonical Normative Standards

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The Catholic Church as a complex religious institution in society does not only have a legal code but also a myriad of doctrinal, ethical, sacramental, and moral normative standards to judge orthodoxy of human acts and beliefs of church members and priests. It is also surrounded by a variety of the social and cultural norms of society which can influence ecclesiastical decision-making.

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In the absence of a professional judicial system, the varied and conflicting use and applications of the Church’s normative standards by bishops or church officials may not be always subject to judicial review. The CCL has given the bishops or local ordinaries vast discretionary powers in their dioceses to decide cases in their own jurisdictions. The Vatican seldom interferes in local cases unless these erupted into public scandals such as the sexual abuse of priests in the United States that attracted the attention of the Pope and Roman Curia.

Under this environment of normative pluralism, ecclesial investigators then encounter a multiplicity of normative considerations aside from the legal provisions of Code of the Canon Law (CCL), the legal code of the Church, in deciding canonical cases.[5] Legality is not the only criteria for the Church hierarchy in deciding cases, but also morality and, ultimately, the unity of the Church as one Body of Christ. “The Church’s response to clerical abuse undergirds the belief that criminal abuse by clergy should be sanctioned by the Church internally—if at all—in accordance with canonical commands of contrition and forgiveness, and not by civil authorities” (Logan, p. 321-321). The State’s version of legality is not the only standard for Church to judge clerical abuse.

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Aside from the institutional concern of applying appropriate norms and sanctions to specific cases of clerical abuse, the Church also complies with society’s cultural norms and expectations concerning religious institutions. Thus, bishops face with a variety of normative criteria in deciding complex cases of clerical misbehavior. Although the CCL provisions are clear against clerical abuse, such as sexual abuse against minors, the bishops can choose from other religious and cultural normative standards to judge clerical abuse with the view of protecting the image of the Church in society, avoiding public scandals that undermine the moral authority of the Church in society.

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[1] The Guardian.2010. “How the Boston Globe exposed the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church”. Retrieved 3 May 2017,

[2] Brendan Daly, “Sexual Abuse and Canon Law”, Compass Review 23, (4) (2009), 33. Retrieved 3May 2017,

[3] Canon law is the of the Catholic Church. It includes the Code of Canon Law and many other canonical documents issued by Popes, Roman Congregations, Bishops’ Conferences and Bishops. The current ecclesiastical code in the Catholic Church is the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church was promulgated on January 25,1983, and went into effect on the First Sunday of Advent that same year (Daly, 2009, p.33). In the Catholic Church, very few rules carry a penalty. Only those few actions that injure the life of the Church or seriously imperil the soul of the offender carry a penalty (King, 2011, p.13).

[4]“Canon 1395 of the 1983 of the 1983 CCL explicitly provide that sexual contact with a minor qualifies as one of four classifications of sexual offenses (the other three include any form of coerced sex, a public offense against the 6th commandment, continued open concubinage with a woman after an official warning) for which a priest may be permanently removed the clerical state (Coughlin, 2003, p.980).

[5] See Code of Canon Law. Available at

[6] Canon Law, Crimes, and Fitting Punishments. Retrieved from