The Church’s law provides for various punishments when her sons or daughters go astray, but in the case of priest sexual abusers, perhaps the most serious canonical punishment is not always the best one, according to one canon lawyer.
Critics of church procedures appear to think that defrocking of abusive priests should happen quickly. But Father Beal of the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, disagreed. He cautioned that turning a priest-sexual predator loose in society by separating him from the clerical state might solve the internal problem for the Church, but could serve to worsen the issue as a whole, particularly when the chance of a successful civil trial is minimal.
Those who mete out punishment in the Church — as in a civil legal proceeding — have the challenge of making the punishment fit the crime, a task that is anything but clear-cut and rarely garners unanimous support, Fr Beal noted.
Nevertheless, the Church teaches that penal sanctions in an ecclesial context have essentially a three-fold aim: “repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender.”
The priest gave an overview of the possibilities of punishment for addressing the crime of sexual abuse by members of the clergy:
“These measures are: medicinal penalties or censures (excommunication, interdict and suspension), expiatory penalties, […] and penal remedies. There are also two non-penal strategies which may be useful in addressing the issue.”