Follow the policy, break the law

Has anything in Roman Catholic Church changed when it comes to child protection?

At first blush I deeply want to be believe: yes. The faithful have endured 28 years of civil litigation, several grand jury reports, billions of dollars in settlements, and several high profile criminal trials. However, when I reviewed the most recent proceedings of the Canon Law Society at their 2011 convention in Jacksonville, Florida, my heart dropped.

Diane L. Barr JD, JCD (who is also the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore) presented a seminar, “Obligation of the Tribunal to Report Child Abuse“. Barr reviewed mandatory criminal child abuse reporting laws versus canonical responsibilities—that it, what “church law” says she should do.  She also discussed obligations to privacy, confidentiality and protecting the Diocese. No mention of victims or child protection.

Let’s get something straight: nowhere in the United States does Canon law trump federal, state, or local criminal or civil law. But apparently, Barr does not know that.

Lessons Learned? Eh … not really.

I mistakenly thought that history, common sense and legal knowledge would inform Barr’s recommendations for a model Tribunal policy for reporting child sexual abuse. I was wrong. Here was what she did present as the “proper procedure for abuse reporting”:

  • Step One: Notary brings information to the Judicial Vicar immediately.
  • Step Two: Judicial Vicar reviews information and contacts Youth and Child Protection representative (or diocesan attorney) to discuss further  action.
  • Step Three: Judicial Vicar calls person mentioning allegation and indicates that the person will be contacted by the Youth and Child protection representative (or diocesan attorney) to follow up and determine where to go with the allegation.
  • Step Four: Youth and Child Protection representative (or diocesan attorney) investigates and determines if reporting must be done.
Excuse me, Ms. Barr, but your presentation is flawed. According to the law in every state where there is mandatory reporting, a report must be made TO LAW ENFORCEMENT (not the boss, or the bishop, or the tribunal, or the office of Youth and Child protection) when the reporter, in his or her official capacity, suspects or has reasons to believe that a child has been abused or neglected.
In essence, if you follow Barr’s procedure above, a mandatory reporter is breaking the law.
This is insane and illegal.

After all these years, I offer a simple suggestion. Because the protection of children is a core belief of our society and the history of child protection in the Catholic Church is so pathetic, let’s be straight forward:

Call 911. Right now.



Filed under canon law, clergy abuse, Clergy Sex Abuse

8 responses to “Follow the policy, break the law

  1. As a decon I was raped (August 1970) 9 months prior to ordination (May 1971) – and “rationalized” that the little good I could do would offset the evil I had experienced. I experienced a flash back in the fall of 2001 and remained in ministry until April 2006. In conscience I could not condone the hierarchy’s approach to the crisis. I asked to “step aside” temporarily until the bishops got their act together — from this article it looks like I will be out of ministry a bit longer — after all these years they STILL do not have the slightest idea of what THEY have done to the church and to victims.

  2. jec951

    Actually, Catholic Church law for the dioceses in the United States does require dioceses to follow the civil law concerning allegations of sexual abuse of minors.

    “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” (approved by the Bishop in the United States in 2002 and revised in 2011)

    ARTICLE 4. Dioceses/eparchies are to report an allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is a minor to the public authorities. Dioceses/eparchies are to comply with all applicable civil laws with respect to the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities and cooperate in their investigation in accord with the law of the jurisdiction in question.
    Dioceses/eparchies are to cooperate with public authorities about reporting cases even when the person is no longer a minor.
    In every instance, dioceses/eparchies are to advise victims of their right to make a report to public authorities and support this right.

    “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons” (these Norms have Vatican approval to serve as particular law for the dioceses in the Unites States)

    Norm 11. The diocese/eparchy will comply with all applicable civil laws with respect to the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities and will cooperate in their investigation. In every instance, the diocese/eparchy will advise and support a person’s right to make a report to public authorities.

    Rev. James Connell, JCD
    Archdiocese of Milwaukee

    • patrickjwall

      Rev. Connell,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. It is only through open discussion that we will attain the ultimate goal of transparency and child safety.

      Of course I am very familiar with the Charter. The operative question here is: does the Charter trump the CLSA procedure as outlined by Dianne L. Barr?

  3. jec951


    As you might already realize, the Charter, although a morally binding document, does not stand as actual church law. The Essential Norms, however, once approved by the Vatican, became particular law for the dioceses in the United States. The Essential Norms are just as binding as is the Code of Canon Law. It’s a matter of both/and, not either/or. Nothing in the Code prohibits a diocese from complying with both the EN and the Charter.

    [As an aside, I would point out that the USCCB engages a firm to audit the Charter, but not to audit the Essential Norms. The scope of the audit is limited to the Charter. Thus, that which is legally binding (EN) is not audited, while that which is not legally binding (Charter) is audited. I consider this to be a major flaw in the USCCB’s commitment to protecting children – and I have told them so.]

    Dr. Barr seems to acknowledge the responsibility to follow the civil law concerning reporting sexual abuse of a minor when she says “Our own bishops have made it very clear in the Charter and in local documents concerning Codes of Ethics and other policies that it is imperative to comply with the law and report child abuse. Any exception has been related solely to the acquisition of such knowledge by a priest under the seal of confession.” (2011 Proceedings, p. 71, “Protecting the Diocese”)

    At the same time, however, I agree with you that her “typical responsibility tree” at the end of her piece lacks any comment regarding compliance with appropriate civil law.

    (Fr.) Jim Connell

  4. Patrick,

    Thank you–again–for the good work you do.

    Your essay is very enlightening.

    Frank Douglas
    Tucson, AZ

  5. Pingback: Follow the policy, break the law | Patrick J. Wall « Voice of the Faithful ®

  6. The faithful have endured 28 years of civil litigation, several grand jury reports, billions of dollars in settlements, and several high profile criminal trials.

    The faithful can solve the Catholic Church’s child abuse problem by growing up and stop being faithful. If there were no Catholics (also known as suckers) to pay the legal bills, there would be no more Catholic Church, which is a worthless organization that has never contributed anything to human progress.

  7. Latinatheistgal

    Thank you so much for your work on behalf of children. I am a teacher and if I even suspect abuse, I DO NOT go to my principal for “permission” to contact CPS…I MUST make a report to CPS directly and within 48 hours…If I fail to report or if I let my superiors determine whether or not to contact the authorities, I could be in serious trouble with the law. CPS investigates the alleged abuse, NOT my principal or the superintendent or the school board. Keeping post-birth children SAFE from sexual predators is a PRO-LIFE position.

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