US Catholic Faith in Real Life

A little mercy for Mahony? Vatican blocked attempts to remove abusing priest

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

It's hard to generate much sympathy for Cardinal Roger Mahony, especially given the onslaught of files recently released that showed unacceptable failure to adequately respond to the Los Angeles' archdiocese clergy sex abuse problem. Last week, however, the L.A. Times reported what many bishops have long complained about, if only privately: an outmoded Vatican legal structure that made it virtually impossible to remove a priest intent on resisting laicization.

Case in point is Father Kevin Barmasse, who as far back as 1993 had been accused of giving alcohol to and molesting teenage boys. Barmasse appealed to Rome, since as a priest he has separate legal protections provided by canon law. Despite Mahony's personal interventions in Rome, it took 10 years to remove Barmasse from the clerical state, due partially to the sheer lack of staff in the Vatican (along with other issues, no doubt).

Mahony could, of course, simply turned Barmasse into the police--and that's likely what he should have done, presuming that criminal behavior was involved, which seems quite obvious unless it is legal in California to give underage boys alcohol. But to me it also signals the complete inability of the Vatican apparatus to deal with problems of this magnitude. If the church had an empowered tribunal system, which was intended in the revision of canon law but removed by Pope John Paul II, the system might have actually worked. Instead, a staff of a mere 45 people at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith is trying to deal with a problem completely beyond most people's competence.

The fact is, it is impossible to effectively govern a communion of 1.2 billion people and thousands of local churches (dioceses) from the Vatican--even it was a modern technocracy, as most Western governments are, and not a vestigial medieval monarchy. The Roman Catholic Church is just too big, its contexts too diverse, for this system of government--a fact that is plain when seen through the lens of the sex abuse crisis. One hopes that the next pope might recognize that, and lead the church to a new alternative.