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Time to reopen church prisons?

Catholic authorities now must provide the supervision of known and convicted members no longer incarcerated by the state

Time to reopen church prisons?
Father Michael Kelly SJ, Bangkok International

March 21, 2017

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Controversy has raged over the pope's "mercy" on two pedophile priests in Europe whom the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wanted laicized after their convictions. It added to the trouble the church has everywhere in being taken seriously about child protection.

The pope said rather than suppressing their priesthood (as is common, almost mandatory, for convicted clerical pedophiles), they were to lead lives of isolation, prayer and penance.

Then one of them reportedly reoffended.

A similar problem — what to do about clerical and Religious criminals — will recur in India soon enough. Several priests in Bangalore are implicated in the murder of a seminary rector and more recently a priest has been accused of rape occasioning the birth of a child and another priest and two nuns wanted by police to "assist with their investigations" and leading to allegations of complicity and cover-up.

India and Rome are only the most publicly visible instances of a real problem: what to do with vowed or ordained criminals. But they present a similar challenge that is one for the whole church: how to handle and supervise convicted criminals on their release or even without conviction when they have been found to have misbehaved?

Laicizing clerics and dispensing religious from their vows is the easy way out and it might bring comfort to Catholic officials who can wipe their hands of the convicted. But it is irresponsible when looked at objectively.

Sex offenders are often habitual actors, trapped in pathological behavior patterns that will recur and visit more destructive behavior on the community. 

But expulsion form the priesthood or a religious community ensures that there will be no supervision of the Catholic sex offenders' behavior nor any provision of the duty of care that Catholic authorities owe the community.

The pope has been attacked for going "soft" on sex offenders among the clergy. But the problem is not his going soft on criminals among the clergy. It's his gross overestimation of the resources that the church needs while dealing with miscreant clergy and religious which can't be met by a sentence of lifelong prayer and penance.

Papal behavior was not always so. As visitors cross the Tiber River and head towards St. Peter's in Rome, the most imposing multistory building is Castel Sant'Angelo. Now a museum, it was the papal prison for centuries. That ceased when Italy was established and the Papal States were appropriated by the new state in 1870.

And most monasteries with medieval or earlier origins — even ones built in the last two centuries modeled on monastic designs that go back a millennium — have their own cells where miscreant monks were jailed for offences adjudicated by the abbot.

Such draconian measures are not what is required today. Sentences of imprisonment for offences is what the courts across the world issue. Criminals do their time for the crime. But then what? Frequently such convicts are older people whose destructive lives catch up with them later in life if they are caught before their deaths.

Just returning such people to the community is an invitation to let loose dangerous people on the community and those that were responsible for them when the crimes were committed are left absolved of any responsibility for the predictable recidivism. 

In the 21st century and as an entailment of the mercy the church owes to the wider society, Catholic authorities now must provide the supervision and control of known and convicted members who have already been deprived of any capacity to exercise ministry and are no longer incarcerated by the state.

It's not prisons that the church needs to revive along the lines of Castel Sant'Angelo or the monastic prison cells. It is the provision of people and places where sex offenders can be housed and managed to see they don't offend again.

Such attention and oversight is not easy to offer. Few if any dioceses or congregations have the personnel to do this job. And all too often, dioceses and congregations have been found wanting: they restrict the movement of miscreants who are cunning and devious enough to outsmart those placing them under house arrest.

But failure should not mean giving up. Providing such a service is part of the infrastructure of the church that is so lamentably weak: human resources management that also includes not simply care of effective personnel and the fostering of their maturity and skills to be of better service to the church's mission. 

It also means providing the close management of personnel who have become a blight on the church for whatever reason: they haven't matured, should never have been ordained or taken vows, have severe personality disorders, etc.

Anything short of this development leaves the church accused of and condemned for criminal negligence. These offenders were authorized agents of the church. They visited their destructiveness on the innocent and unsuspecting while they were properly credentialed agents of a diocese or a religious congregation or a lay movement.

It's up to the church to recognize its responsibility for creating the problem in the first place and not indulging itself at a new level of escapism.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.

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