Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

October 14, 2009


Our bishops in their Dallas Charter established a battery of policies, programs, and oversight that quite effectively protect children. But the Charter is flawed, in its structure and its administration, as to protecting priests from false accusations. Priests are heard to say, "Once you are accused, you're dead!" Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ published a critique on this aspect of the Charter ( AMERICA Magazine, June 21, 2004). On my previous post, I treated how his concern about "Settlements" played out in experience by possibly victimizing innocent priests. In this post, I intend to show how Dulles' concern about "Misuse of Charter procedure" was justified by an example of the bitter experience of an innocent priest. My ultimate purpose in this and subsequent posts is to urge our bishops to revisit the Charter and amend it to protect the falsely accused without weakening any safeguards for our children.

Responding to our shortage of priests, Father Ramon left his native Philippines. Welcomed by the Diocese of Metuchen, he was appointed to St. Helena's, in Edison, NJ. He was to baptize a new infant of friends at St. Jane's, Bethesda, MD. on August 9, 2008. Shortly before that date, the baptism was cancelled. The pastor had been notified by the Vicar General of Metuchen that clearance could not be given because an allegation of sexual abuse had been lodged against Ramon through the San Francisco Chancery.

Emotionally and spiritually devastated, Ramon, on August 6, sought my assistance as a canon lawyer to try to correct what he felt was a great injustice. Ramon's story: Twenty odd years ago, he had a brief consensual affair with a Ms. L. Subsequently, she brought charges against him, alleging that the relationship was abusive: he a priest, taking advantage of his position over herself, a volunteer.

As a canon lawyer, it was my opinion that there was no viable case here of sexual abuse. Both parties were adults; the stringent rules for abuse of a young person, as in the Dallas Charter, were not applicable. Ms. L denied Ramon's claim that the affair was consensual, a denial practically impossible of proof after twenty years. Even were it provable, a five year statute of limitations (Canon 1362) would have estopped any action.

As Ramon's advocate, I attempted to to clear his record by telephone and e-mail discussions with the vicar general. The VG expressed his concern that Ms. L would charge the Metuchen Diocese for employing an accused sex offender, thus bringing unfavorable publicity to the diocese. On August 22, 2008, Metuchen revoked Father Ramon's faculties,"pending an investigation". He was directed to leave the parish rectory forthwith. St. Helena's pastor paid him, not on the usual monthly basis, but only for the actual days he had worked. At one stroke, he had been deprived of his residence, his income, his employability as a priest, and his good name. He had suddenly become a pariah!

In the opinion of many canonists and those who watch "Law and Order", the Charter had inappropriately constituted Metuchen's bishop as the arresting officer, the prosecutor, the judge, the sentencing judge, and the appellant bench! To purport this as an acceptable administrative or judicial structure is an embarrassment to our Church.

The only investigation undertaken, of which I am aware, was my own. Metuchen's Bishop responded to my inquiry that he had revoked Ramon's faculties because of a serious sexual matter about him, reported by an official of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. I had requested of both dioceses a copy of the cover letter sent from San Francisco to Metuchen. Metuchen replied that all the material received from San Francisco had been forwarded to me. This material consisted soley of correspondence and notes by San Francisco's social worker, whose job description was to aid victims of abuse.

San Francisco's archbishop wrote, stating that neither he or any archdiocesan official had made any negative judgment or issued any warning about Ramon but that they were simply trying to help Ms. L, a parishioner, to receive assistance by way of counseling, financial aid, whatever. I requested that the two bishops contact each other to resolve the confusion about San Francisco's communication. I have not had any indication that this was done.

It is my opinion that Metuchen had misunderstood San Francisco's communication and seized upon the assignation story contained in it, as a warning about Ramon.This it certainly was not! As I have shown, the story as an example of abusive behavior was a dead dog, twenty years dead. Metuchen appears to me to have followed, again mistakenly, Dallas Charter procedures.

Metuchen's bishop responded that he has complete discretion as to accepting or dismissing an extern priest. Canonically, that is true (but whether it is good law is something else). But as Dulles has pointed out in the above referenced article that "When a priest is treated as guilty, he has lost his good name". In Ramon's case, it is my opinion that his reputation was defamed in the understanding of the Bethesda pastor, the baptismal party, St. Helena's parishioners, and Ramon's close-knit Filipino community.

As Ramon's advocate, I petitioned Metuchen to declare my client free of any charge of sexual abuse and to undertake rehabiliation of his name, which, in my opinion, had been defamed in violation of Canon 220. I presented our documentary proof. I requested a hearing before the bishop in Metuchen for Ramon and myself. Our request for a hearing was summarily denied and our petition rejected.

Ramon and I then contacted his bishop in Batanes, P.I., Camilo D. Gregorio. Bishop Gregorio knew about Ms.L and her stalking of Ramon. He wrote to both the bishop of Metuchen and the archbishop of San Francisco on July 15, 2009 (Cc to me): "Unfortunately [Ramon], has been subjected to a very painful experience by being removed of his faculties through what I would call a misapplication of the Dallas Charter on him. The poor priest has suffered the loss of his good name and has been deprived of his canonical rights... Allow me to say candidly that [Ramon] has been a victim of canonical injustice here which we, Bishops, need to look into with humility and to which we have an obligation to correct as best we can." What a beautiful relationship has been shown here between a bishop and one of his priests.

To date, I am not aware of any response from either bishop to Bishop Gregorio's letter. There the matter rests: Ramon, deprived of his residence, his priestly faculties, employability, and his income. As a canonist, it is my opinion that Metuchen misunderstood the communication from San Francisco, mistakenly followed the loose Dallas Charter procedures, violated Canon 220 (the right to one's good name), and failed to observe the canonical presumption of innocence.

Such abrupt dismissal, per diem wage payment, and loss of residence and employability, like Ramon's, would never occur at the hands of a considerate employer and would not be tolerated by a labor union. Was it even Christian? Priests, including externs from other countries, have rights. They, too, have lives to live!

May Ramon's treatment be a strong call for a revisiting of the Dallas Charter! The Charter needs fixing!

( Your comments, please!)