Churches adopt stringent guidelines on sex offences
"Welcome to the church of what's happening now. Head straight through - it costs nothing but change."
- Lyrics from "The Church of What's Happening Now," by Sia
One positive development stemming from the sexual abuse scandal that has cast a pall over the Roman Catholic Church is that churches in this province are getting better at talking about it.
When Bishop Raymond Lahey was sentenced recently for importing child pornography, Archbishop Martin Currie spoke publicly about the matter in St. John's, sending a letter to parishes, giving media interviews and posting his message on the archdiocese's website.
"Raymond Lahey has requested to be removed from the clerical state," he wrote. "The church will impose this or other penalties."
And just what those penalties could be has also been a topic of discussion.
Lahey has asked to be laicized, but before that happens - if that happens - he will be subject to new rules of the church.
As Chris Cobb and Dan Neutel noted in The Ottawa Citizen on Jan. 4:
"In May 2010, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith approved new rules to deal with clerics who use child pornography and made it a crime under canon law to possess child pornography. The Lahey case is the first to be dealt with under those new rules, so the Catholic Church will enter new ground in when it decides his fate."
Lahey could be sent to a monastery or other retreat to serve the rest of his life in "prayer and penance," or he could be banned from holding mass or otherwise leading the faithful.
Given the seriousness of his crime and the fact he acknowledged his guilt, I hope the Vatican opts for defrocking.
The church, surely, is no place for child pornographers. How can you minister to a congregation that includes children when you have demonstrated a predisposition for enjoying their suffering?
Crimes and misdemeanours
The Anglican Church has rules of its own for dealing with transgressions.
According to Anglican canon law, a priest or bishop can be disciplined for "conviction of an indictable offence" and "immorality," among other offences.
Punishments range from an admonishment by the bishop to "deposition from the exercise of ministry" - the Anglican version of defrocking.
How dioceses choose to administer punishment is at the discretion of bishops.
For example, in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, an Anglican priest was deposed in 2010 for having had a relationship with a female congregant who was also an employee of the diocese.
I contacted Bishop Brian Farran, who made the decision to expel the priest from the church. He can't comment now because the matter is before the Supreme Court. In media reports, though, he has said it is never appropriate for clergy to ''take advantage of their role to engage in sexual activity with a person with whom they have a pastoral relationship."
In this country, ordained priests are not deposed often.
"I would say perhaps eight in a year, out of thousands of clergy," said Archdeacon A. Paul Feheley, the principal secretary to the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
"It's something we take seriously. ... The church responds very quickly to act as best it can."
Archbishop Colin R. Johnson, who is responsible for the diocese of Toronto, told The Telegram, "In a disciplinary case, a bishop who has oversight of a cleric has a range of penalties he or she can impose depending on the severity of an offence, ranging from private admonition to deposition."
Often, a disgraced priest will have his licence suspended, preventing him from practising in his home parish, or any other.
Or, he could be "deprived" by the church, which Johnson described as having "the additional effect of severing the appointment the person holds, and along with it, pay and other benefits, and it has no time limit."
Deposition is the most severe disciplinary option. Johnson himself has never used it because, as he says, it "permanently releases the cleric from any future accountability to the bishop."
That's an interesting argument, particularly if maintaining some sort of accountability to the bishop helps keep the priest on the straight and narrow.
Closer to home, Anglican priest Robin Barrett was arrested in 2009 for the possession and distribution of child pornography, which sparked an international probe called Project Sanctuary.
He was subsequently convicted and placed on the national sex offenders registry for 20 years. As soon as that happened, he was dropped from the church payroll and his licence was suspended, which means he cannot practise in any parish.
"We are deeply concerned with the sexual exploitation of children," said Archdeacon Sandra Tilley, executive officer of the Anglican diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador.
"We have zero tolerance. ... We have a protocol in place that deals with sexual offences and we would not let anybody on the sex offenders list have a licence as a priest."
Of course, child pornographers don't all wind up in the priesthood; as we have seen from local news coverage, they come from all walks of life.
But perhaps as churches make the public and parishioners aware of their zero-tolerance policies, sexual offenders of all stripes can be kept out of the pulpit.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton