“Time only helps memories fade, witnesses disappear, and evidence get destroyed,” he said. “Time only helps a defendant in a trial.”
The situation can be difficult for the accused as well.
The Rev. Jay M. Mullin has worked fewer than four years out of the last 20. Accused in 1992 of abusing a teenager in Allston in 1970, Mullin was put on health leave until 1998. After returning to ministry for several years, he was removed from his job as a nursing home chaplain in late 2001, weeks before the sexual abuse crisis erupted in Boston.
Mullin, who maintains his innocence, has been in limbo ever since.
“I can’t tell you very much, because I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting, and at this point, I’m just quietly passing time.”
Manning, the cleric who has not worked since 1996, referred a reporter to his lawyer, who did not return messages requesting comment.
It is difficult to independently analyze the cause of the delays because, like the grand jury process in the American legal system, virtually every aspect of a canonical penal trial is secret. Proceedings are closed. Files are confidential. The church will not even publicly identify individual priests’ canon lawyers.
The majority of the 252 priests accused of sexual abuse in Boston are either dead, members of religious orders, or affiliated with other dioceses, meaning they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Boston archdiocese’s canon process.
The tribunal has disposed of 53 cases administratively. Most of those priests were either voluntarily laicized, admitted the abuse and accepted punishment, or were dismissed after a criminal or civil trial in the US court system.
The archdiocese says 21 cases remain unresolved, 11 of which appear likely to go to trial or are already in trial. The tribunal will probably handle the remaining 10 through an administrative process rather than a full-blown trial.
But the archdiocese acknowledges that the Boston tribunal has completed only three full trials of priests accused of sexual abuse since 2002, including one whose verdict was announced last month. In each case, the priest was exonerated; two remain restricted in their assignment, one is not.
It is not clear whether other dioceses are as backlogged as the Boston archdiocese, but several canonists said in interviews that Boston may be a bit more behind because of the scale and intensity of the sexual abuse crisis here a decade ago.
The church can ill-afford to spend millions of dollars supporting accused priests. Its finances were already in a long-term decline, officials say, when the abuse crisis hit, plunging the church into a fiscal abyss for much of the last decade and forcing the sale of the Brighton chancery, staff layoffs, and salary cuts.
The archdiocese emphasizes that the cost of supporting accused priests no longer comes from general funds, which include offertory collections. After spending $15.8 million on priests in legal limbo between 2000 and 2008, the archdiocese set up a special account devoted to this purpose using money left over from the sale of its Brighton campus — one of the main pots of money the church has used to compensate victims of clergy sexual abuse.
In the four years since, however, the archdiocese has spent $6.7 million of the $10 million set aside.
John E. Straub, interim chancellor of the archdiocese, said it would be “premature at this point” to say what the church would do if the fund ran dry.
“We’re confident and hopeful that we’ll continue to move these cases along,” he said. He added, though, that several million dollars remained available.
The church has little choice about whether to pay clergy in legal limbo. Canon law requires the archdiocese to provide for the basic needs of all priests until they die, voluntarily leave, or are “dismissed from the clerical state.”
In fact, canon lawyer Cafardi noted, the church may continue supporting priests who are dismissed if they are “truly in need because of the penalty.”
Some canonists said they were not surprised that Boston had so many old cases. The Rev. John Beal, a professor at The Catholic University of America’s School of Canon Law, said canonical cases plod forward slowly in the best of circumstances and sometimes grind to a standstill for months or years.
Complaints of sexual abuse are initially looked into by a diocesan investigator, who presents findings to a review board. The board makes a recommendation to the bishop on how to proceed.
The bishop then submits his assessment to the Vatican office in charge of sexual abuse, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which reviews the case and decides what should happen next.Continued...