A dicussion of priest's rights in liturgy, particularly with regard to newspaper reports that three Catholic priests have successfully appealed to the Vatican about the way their cases were handled by the Archdiocese of Melbourne in Australia.



More on this in my journal of 15 December 2001

Journal of 18 December 2001

Journal of 10 January 2002

Journal of 11 January 2002 Discussing an editorial

Journal of 12 January 2002 on The Age's editorial

Journal of 15 January on Cardinal Law's statement


Priest's Rights

Over the past few days newspapers in Melborne have been reporting on how the Melbourne archdiocese deals with accusations of sexual abuse against Catholic clergy. There seems to have been a successful appeal by priests who have been accused of sexual abuse and have lost their rights to celebrate Mass publicly, hear confessions and administer Holy Communion.

The story began in The Sunday Age on 9 December 2001:

Sex-abuse priests win Rome appeal

by Larry Schwartz

Three Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse have successfully appealed to the Vatican about hte way their cases were handled by the Archdiocese of Melborne under a system implemented by the then archbishop, George Pell.

The ruling by the church's Council for Clergy in Rome challenges the authority of the archdiocese's Commission into Sexual Abuse, which removed priests who were implicated in abuse from parishes, and took away their rights to celebrate Mass publicly, hear confessions and administer Holy Communion. ...

In a brochure "Sexual Abuse: The Melbourne Archdiocese Response" Archbishop Pell wrote:

The Church has procedures in place already aimed at preventing any recurrence of sexual abuse and to guard against the re-employment of offending clergy. If convicted of any serious offence, a priest is withdrawn immediately from all public and pastoral duties.

According to the Code of Canon Law, Canon 290:

Sacred ordination once validly received never becomes invalid. A cleric, however, loses the clerical state:
1. by a judgement of a court or an administrative decree, declaring the ordination invalid;
2. by the penalty of dismissal lawfully imposed;
3. by a rescript of the Apostolic See; this rescript, however, is granted by the Apostolic See to deacons for only grave reasons and to priests for only the gravest of reasons.

Canon 291 says this does not mean a loss of the obligation to celibacy. Canon 292 it explains that the loss of the clerical state means no longer having the rights or obligations of a cleric. For example they would no longer be required to wear suitable ecclesiastical dress (Canon 284) and would be free to practice commerce or trade (Canon 286) or volunteer for the armed services (Canon 289).

What is the situation with Peter Waters? According to the front page of The Sunday Age:

Two years ago the commission ruled that Mr Santamaria had been sexually abused by Father Peter Waters, one of the three priests to have successfully appealed to Rome. Father Waters formally refused to accept the commission's jurisdiction and denied allegations that he abused Mr Santamaria, a former altar boy and choir member, in the late 1970s.

Does he have a right to hear confessions? This is discussed in Canons 965 - 986. Particularly relevant seems to be:

Canon 970. The faculty to hear confessions is not to be given except to priests whose suitability has been established, either by examination or by some other means.

Canon 974.1 Neither the local Ordinary nor the competent Superior may, except for a grave reason, revoke the faculty habitually to hear confessions. ...

So Archbishop Pell, as the local Ordinary, would seem to have a grave reason for revoking this. Exceptions are given in the Code for cases in danger of death, when any priest could hear confessions.

Can he celebrate the Mass publicly? Canons 900 - 911 discuss this. The following seems particularly relevant:

Canon 900.1 The only minister who, in the person of Christ, can bring into being the sacrament of the Eucharist is a validly ordained priest.

2. Any priest who is not debarred by canon law may lawfully celebrate the Eucharist, provided the provisions of the following canons are observed.

Canon 906. A priest may not celebrate the eucharistic Sacrifice without the participation of at least one of the faithful, unless there is a good and reasonable cause for doing so.

About Canon 900, John Huels wrote in The Pastoral Companion, page 86:

Priests can be deprieved of their right to celebrate Mass in virtue of a canonical penalty (cf. cans. 1331.1.2; 1332; 1333.1.1; 1338.2); or if they have lost the clerical state (cf. cans. 290; 292; 1336.1.5); or if they have incurred an irregularity or impediment to the exercise of their orders (cf. can. 1044).

Looking at these, I don't see a justification for him not being able to celebrate Mass publicly. Either he should not celebrate Mass at all, or he should be able to celebrate Mass properly -- with the faithful, in a Church, etc.

A lot about the case is not known. The Sunday Age article had "details of the appeals are not known" and:

Dr Pell, who is now Archbishop of Sydney, declined to comment on the Vatican's ruling, referring inquiries to Melbourne's current archbishop Denis Hart, who did not respond to a request for an interview.

But the archdicoese's vicar-general, Christopher Prowse, said it was still too early to know the ramifications of the appeals.

Monsignor Prowse declined to give details of the Vatican's ruling ...

Today there is a story on page 5 of The Australian:

Diocese defies Vatican on abuse

Alison Crosweller

Melbourne's Catholic archbishop has defended the way the church deals with sex abuse claims after the Vatican raised doubts about the procedure and granted appeals to three priests. ...

A letter in The Age on 11 December expressed the understandable reaction: "the church confirms that the archdiocese is fulfilling its obligations to the priests: clothing, housing etc. Who ensured that obligations to children were being fulfilled". With what I have written about the rights of instituted lectors I think its important that the Church respect everyone's rights.

Copyright J.R. Lilburne, 12 December 2001. Last updated 7 April 2002. Canon Law extracts from The Code of Canon Law, HarperCollins, 1997.


Links to other sites:

Archbishop Pell's Media Release on Commission 30 October 1996

Media Release on upgrade 2 May 1997

Sunday Age story 9 December 2001

Cathtelecom.com report 10 December 2001

Editorial in The Age 11 December 2001

Media Release by Archbishop Hart 11 December 2001

ABC report 12 December "Melbourne Archbishop Defends Sexual Abuse Commission"

8 Jan 2002 EWTN "New Rules"

Catholicnews.com "Papal letter announces new norms for clergy sex abuse cases" of 9 Jan 2002

The Age newspaper of 10 Jan 2002: "Church to keep trials 'in-house'