The Archdiocese of Boston has spent more than $22.5 million since 2000 on salaries and health benefits for clergy awaiting a resolution of their sexual abuse cases from the church’s internal legal system.
The majority of cases, which can determine whether a priest is restored to ministry or cast out for good, have been concluded. But some have sat unresolved for more than a decade. And the cost of supporting accused clergy continues to mount.
The archdiocese attributes the delays in part to the inherently slow penal process in the church’s justice system, known as canon law, and the deluge of cases after the church’s sexual abuse coverup was exposed.
But the long waits have delayed a resolution for both priests and victims, prolonging the crisis.
Fifteen Boston priests who were removed from ministry in 2004 or earlier still await the conclusion of their canonical cases, in the meantime earning as much as $40,000 a year, plus health benefits. One — the Rev. Paul F. Manning, who turns 72 this year — has not worked in the ministry since 1996.
In each of those cases, an archdiocesan investigator has made an initial finding that at least one abuse allegation against the priest appears credible, and the priest has been suspended from public ministry pending the outcome of his canonical proceeding.
Nicholas P. Cafardi, a prominent canon lawyer and professor at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, said that trials conducted by the Catholic Church should not take more than three or four years.
“There is no reason for a canonical process, even with appeals, to take from 2004 to 2012,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Boston archdiocesan officials acknowledge the delays are excessive.
“We get it,” said Monsignor Robert P. Deeley, vicar general of the archdiocese, who is also a distinguished canon lawyer.
Deeley, one of two Americans whom the Vatican summoned to Rome in 2004 to reduce a logjam of sexual abuse cases there, said he has been concerned about the issue since he returned to Boston last year to help run the archdiocese.
“We understand why there is concern about this on the part of the survivors,” Deeley said, “and we are working to resolve the problem as we can for their benefit, and for the benefit of the church and ... for the benefit of the priests themselves.”
In an interview at the archdiocesan headquarters in Braintree, Deeley said the backlog should be considered in context: The church was flooded with some 1,000 abuse complaints at once after the sexual abuse crisis exploded in Boston in 2002. Just two years later, the archdiocese began a round of church closings that precipitated another glut of canonical cases, as parishioners challenged some of the closing decisions.
The Boston tribunal’s docket is also jammed with more routine issues, such as marriage annulments. Last year, there were 500 marriage-related cases alone.
Canonists — usually priests with specialized training in canon law who participate as lawyers and judges — are relatively scarce, Deeley said; about two dozen are working on the abuse cases in Boston. The vast majority are priests with parish responsibilities in addition to their legal work.
Coordinating their schedules for tribunals can be difficult, particularly when a canonist from outside the diocese is participating. Each case involves six canonists — three judges, an advocate for the defense, a “promoter of justice” who represents the church as a whole, and a notary.
Deeley said Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, understands the importance of moving trials forward, and that is why the cardinal agreed to send Deeley to Rome to help the Vatican deal with its backlog.
“He is keenly committed to getting the cases done,” he said.
For victims, the wait can be excruciating. A man who first formally accused the Rev. James J. Foley Jr. of molesting him in 1999 had to wait until 2011 to testify in a tribunal. He is adamant that Foley be permanently removed from ministry.
“For years, it’s been us calling them — ‘What have you heard? Where do we stand? What is going to happen?’ ” he said. “I was sour anyway on the church, but it was brutal.”
The man has heard little from the church since, he said. “We’ve been told to hurry up and wait,” he said.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who represents a second man who claims he was abused by Foley, dismissed the canonical system as a “kangaroo court,” a legal system run by an institution that protects its own. Delays only diminish whatever justice the canonical system can provide, he said.
“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.
The Congregation can take six months to several years to make its determination, Beal said. If the Congregation decides there should be a trial — either in Rome or in a diocese — the proceeding is typically delayed until any related civil or criminal action is concluded.
The trial itself can be a protracted affair, unfolding “in bits and pieces” over weeks, months, or even years rather than days, as most trials in the US legal system do, Beal said. Witnesses are called as they are available; the church has no subpoena power.
All motions and objections are argued and decided in writing, which Beal said “prolongs the thing indefinitely” and can be used effectively by the defense as a delaying tactic.
“If you think of every time you’ve been to a trial and the defense attorney stands up and says, ‘Objection,’ imagine that taking place in writing,” Beal said.
The archdiocese, in a statement about the reasons for the backlog, also cited “an appeals process that can be accessed by both the prosecution and defense, as well a number of procedural appeals, all of which can take a number of years, given the limited number of canon lawyers.”
The tribunal’s verdict must be affirmed by Rome. Either party may appeal the results, which can result in an entirely new trial.Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.