Much of the recent scrutiny of the Roman Catholic Church’s response to clergy sexual abuse has focused on whether the Vatican and the man who is now pope acted quickly enough to remove perpetrators from the priesthood.
At the same time, church officials, experts in abuse prevention and even some victims’ advocates question whether the time-consuming church process known as laicisation, often called defrocking, is the right benchmark in abuse cases.
To defrock or not? The question is complicated by the reality that most abuse allegations date back decades and cannot be prosecuted criminally, leaving decisions about how to deal with abusers largely in the hands of church authorities.
Some Catholics say laicising a perpetrator, which only the Vatican can do, is just and fair – an unambiguous verdict that validates victims and punishes child molesters with the clerical equivalent of the death penalty.
But laicising a priest can take years, while a local bishop can swiftly yank perpetrators from working with children and continue to keep tabs on them.
Because of that, others say the focus should be on holding church officials accountable for taking action short of that: permanently removing perpetrators from ministry and keeping them away from children.
One knock on laicisation is that the church and former priest cut ties, meaning an abuser would be free of all church supervision.
“People get so mad at perpetrators, which is understandable, and the bishops,” said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and former head of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, which treats molester priests. “But they forget what the goal is. The goal is to protect minors.”
Laicisation is in the spotlight now because of recently publicized documents that called into question how a powerful Vatican office headed by the future Pope Benedict XVI handled abuse cases.
In two US cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 to his papal election in 2005, either slowed down or resisted steps toward the laicisation of two abuser priests.
One involved a Wisconsin priest, never laicised, accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys. The other concerned an Oakland, California, priest who sought to leave the priesthood after being convicted of child molestation. The request eventually was granted. The Vatican has defended its response, citing the circumstances involved.