NOLA bankruptcy judge says accused clerics cannot be paid. Is the order “credible?”

A federal bankruptcy judge has ordered the Archdiocese of New Orleans to halt stipend payments to priests accused of sex abuse, but who are not on the archdiocese’s list of ‘credibly accused clergy’ “.

While it’s unclear whether the Archdiocese of New Orleans will push back against the court’s decision, the order raises important issues related to the First Amendment, due process for accused clergymen, and residual fallout from the crises. Sexual Abuse of the Church of the Last Decades.

Judge Meredith Grabill ordered August 31 that the Archdiocese must stop making stipends and other maintenance payments to five priests who are not in ministry, but who are not on the Archdiocesan list of clerics credibly accused of sexual abuse.

The order was made in federal bankruptcy court, where the Archdiocese of New Orleans filed for Chapter 11 protection.

Like many U.S. dioceses, New Orleans maintains a list of clergy “credibly accused” of sexual abuse or misconduct, which is based on the findings and recommendations of its independent review board. led by lay people. The Archdiocese of Louisiana first released its list in 2018, shortly after the Theodore McCarrick scandal and the release of a report into sexual abuse by a Pennsylvania grand jury.

Criteria for inclusion on the New Orleans list are not publicly available, though the archdiocese has previously said the list is updated through recommendations from its lay-led independent review board.

But Grabill has used the list before in bankruptcy proceedings. In 2020, she ordered the archdiocese to cease financial support payments to all clergy named on the “credible defendant” list.

New Orleans Catholics noted that the two “stop payment” orders raise obvious constitutional issues.

Canon law establishes that incardinated clerics – even those accused of misconduct – are entitled to “decent support”, or sustenance from their dioceses – provided that sustenance is a religious obligation, enshrined in religious law. To order that he cease would appear to some observers to constitute undue interference in the religious activities of the archdiocese.

While the bankruptcy judge has a duty to prepare the finances of the archdiocese to make payments and settlements to creditors, it seems surprising that this translates into a prohibition on fulfilling a fundamentally religious financial obligation.

And the most recent order is even more surprising.

The 2020 judge’s order was based on archdiocesan criteria – it used an archdiocesan list to intervene in financial support for a particular set of clerics.

The judge’s new order takes that ban beyond the archdiocesan list.

After a review of archdiocesan personnel records, the bankruptcy judge effectively created a special category of clerics – “accused but not credible” and determined that the five priests in this group should await payment of their monthly stipend behind other applicants for archdiocesan funds, including their alleged victims.

In some cases, the priests involved are over 90 years old.

It is unclear whether this type of categorization will stand up to further judicial scrutiny.

But that’s not the only striking thing about the decision.

Judge Grabill’s August order came after her court spent nearly six months reviewing archdiocesan personnel records, including the minutes and proceedings of the Independent Review Board of the Archdiocese – which presumably did not conclude that the allegations against the priests met the local standard of “credibility”.

Review boards have become a central part of adjudicating and resolving the employee sexual abuse crisis in the United States, and have been frequently praised by plaintiffs’ attorneys and victim advocates, who say having broken with the usual clerical culture in American chancelleries. , and contributed to the introduction of new accountability standards.

Review boards are often made up of experts in fields related to abuse: law enforcement, psychology, social work, and law. It is not uncommon for review boards to include retired criminal court judges and prosecutors.

And in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, both the Independent Review Committee, and an independent legal team 2018reviewed the records of nearly 2,500 priests who have served in the region since 1950. The archdiocese said these processes are a sign of its commitment to addressing clerical sexual abuse.

Grabill’s order would appear to refute this claim.

While archdiocesan processes apparently did not find the allegations against the five priests under investigation credible, lawyers for the victims argued that diocesan records “support credible accusations of sexual abuse by [the additional] five priests.

Grabill seemed to agree.

This agreement could be viewed locally as a repudiation of the credibility of the local review board and the 2018 review. 2018 and the Local Board of Review are suspect, which could lead to other matters needing further investigation.

Of course, the judge’s decision also points to a glaring inconsistency in the work of review boards and other types of accountability measures: the ambiguous definition of the word “credibility.”

In recent years, some clergy advocates have complained that the word “credible” is not canonically and civilly defined, resulting in a divergence of expectations and meaning in dioceses across the country.

While one diocese may use ‘credible’ to mean ‘plausible’, another may use it to mean ‘that which probably happened’. And whatever its meaning, it’s not uncommon to find dioceses that use the term in public-facing materials but don’t offer a publicly available definition.

This, experts point out, can quickly become a problem for “credibly accused” priests, who find themselves unable to defend themselves in canonical or criminal trials. It can also become a problem for victims, who expect a “credible” accusation to lead to secularization, and sometimes find that it will not.

Some priests in recent years, “credibly accused” but neither exonerated nor condemned by canonical or state legal proceedings, have found themselves in a sort of clerical vacuum—deemed unfit for assignment, but not secularized.

And it’s entirely possible that Grabill’s order came because she used a different standard of credibility than the one used by the Archdiocese. But inconsistency inevitably leads to frustration – and a crisis of confidence for the Church.

At least one other US diocese has grappled with the issue of financial support for accused clerics in recent years.

In the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, a 2020 plan to stop financial support for accused clerics was canceled shortly after it was announced.

While serving as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Buffalo, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger announced in 2020 that he would end maintenance payments and health benefits for “credibly charged” clergy in the diocese who were not ministerial – this diocese was also in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, after a series of lawsuits on historic abuse charges.

But shortly after that announcement, the Diocese of Buffalo clarified that the decision would not affect pension payments, and that “the diocese recognizes that there are certain canonical obligations to ensure that these individuals are not left behind. without resources and tackles it”.

In Louisiana, it’s unclear whether the Archdiocese of New Orleans will fight the bankruptcy judge’s orders.

Details of the charges against the five priests remain sealed. And a spokesperson for the archdiocese said The pillar this week that “we are evaluating the judge’s decision on this matter and currently have no further comment”.

The spokesperson declined further questions.

But the Archdiocese inevitably faces questions this week from its priests – including those priests who wonder whether the Church will comply with the judge’s orders, and whether that compliance could leave them charged but not tried, or deprived but not secularized.

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