More American Catholics Seeking Justice in Church Courts

New York – Parents upset by the admission policy at a parochial school.  Clergy and parishioners at odds over use of their building. A priest resisting a  transfer to another parish.

It was once assumed that disagreements like these in the Roman Catholic  Church would end one way: with the highest-ranking cleric getting the last  word.

But that outcome is no longer a given as Catholics, emboldened following the  clergy abuse scandals that erupted a decade ago this month, have sought another  avenue of redress.

In recent years, clergy and lay people in the United States have increasingly  turned to the church’s internal legal system to challenge a bishop’s or pastor’s  decision about even the most workaday issues in Catholic life, according to  canon lawyers in academia, dioceses and in private practice. Sometimes, the  challengers even win.

In one example cited by veteran canon lawyers, parishioners wanted to bar  musical performances in their church that weren’t liturgical. Their priest had  been renting space to a local band. In another case, a nun filed a petition  after a religious superior disclosed the nun’s medical information to others – a  potential violation of privacy. Regarding bishops’ often contentious decisions  to close parishes, the liberal reform group FutureChurch posts a guide on its  website called  “Canonical Appeals for Dummies” on seeking Vatican intervention  to stay open.

The reasons for the uptick are complex and reach back decades, involving  changes in the church and broader society. Canon lawyers say the American  concern for individual freedoms likely has played a role. So has the explosion  of information on the Internet. But the change is also an unexpected consequence  of the clergy molestation crisis, with the scandal exerting an influence far  beyond cases that directly involve abusers.

“The focus on canon law and penal procedures in the case of sexual misconduct  has made people aware that the church has a law system, it can work and people  can take advantage of it,” said Michael Ritty, founder of Canon Law  Professionals, a private practice in Feura Bush, N.Y.  “For so long, especially  in the United States, many of the lay people did not speak up and did not know  how to speak up, and many people in the hierarchy did not know how to accept  things when people did speak up. I think that is changing.”

No one knows the exact number of formal petitions before tribunals or  agencies at the Vatican, or before church officials in the U.S. or in any  country. The cases are guarded by pontifical secrecy, which bars advocates,  judges and other parties from revealing details of the proceedings.

Still, U.S. canon lawyers say they have seen more widespread use of church  law to resolve disputes.

Read more here.

 

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About Fr Stephen Smuts

TAC Priest in South Africa.
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