What happens when a priest faces an allegation decades old?

As Fr. Michael Pfleger is accused of sexual abuse, a Pillar Explainer.

On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that Fr. Michael Pfleger, a well-known South Side priest, has been accused of “sexual abuse of a minor more than 40 years ago.” The priest has agreed to “step aside from ministry,” and vacate his parish rectory while the allegation is investigated. 

While Cardinal Blase Cupich emphasized in a Jan. 5 letter that “guilt or innocence should not be assumed,” the parish council of Pfleger’s St. Sabina Parish issued a letter claiming that “these accusations are unfounded,” and that Pfleger “will be fully exonerated from all accusations.”

Neither Cupich nor the parish council offered details of the allegation against Pfleger. But the allegations prompt a question for some Catholics: What happens when a priest faces allegations decades old? How does the Church handle them?

Policies and procedures

The Church’s processes for handling allegations of clerical child sexual abuse are determined by the Code of Canon Law, a Vatican policy called Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, and a pair of USCCB documents commonly called the “Dallas Charter” and the “Essential Norms.” The Archdiocese of Chicago, like all U.S. dioceses, adds a local policy manual to detail the specifics of some investigative processes.

After a diocese receives an allegation of child sexual abuse, it must be reported to police, and the diocese must undertake a “preliminary investigation,” before consulting with the diocesan review board, an independent board appointed by the bishop to advise him on handling cases.

(Usually, a diocese waits until after the police investigation concludes before beginning the Church investigation.)

The review board acts as a sort of consultative grand jury, charged with recommending to the bishop whether an allegation has the “semblance of truth” and should proceed to formal canonical prosecution. If the board responds in the affirmative, and the bishop agrees, the case is forwarded to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In canon law, the “semblance of truth” is a very low standard of proof - described by the U.S. bishops’ conference as “not manifestly false or frivolous.” In other words, as long as the allegation isn’t demonstrably untrue - because, say, the priest accused of abuse was not yet ordained or was living in another country at the time when the abuse allegedly occurred - the case must be forwarded to the CDF in Rome, which either may deal with the case directly, or delegate the handling of the case back to the diocese.

Like criminal law, canon law has statute of limitations provisions - called “prescription” in the Church. When an allegation is 40 years old, prescription will have expired - the statute of limitations has run out. But, in the Church, prescription can be waived, and the CDF is empowered to order a canonical trial, or an expedited penal process, even when a priest is accused of abuse long after the prescription limitations have passed. A penal process could lead to his laicization.

But when a priest faces an allegation decades old, he is not usually afforded a canonical trial. His case often concludes with a far more ambiguous resolution.

In practice

When a decades old allegation against a priest is announced, it is sometimes like the opening of a dam, and a torrent of other long unknown allegations follow. Sexual abuse allegations can lie dormant for decades because of the psychological damage abuse inflicts on victims; it requires immense emotional strength to be the first victim to come forward. But once the silence is broken, sometimes others abused by the same priest find themselves ready and able to come forward.

In cases like that, when multiple allegations emerge at around the same time, the Church is usually able to conduct some penal process, and, if the priest is guilty, see him laicized, or otherwise permanently barred from ministry.

When a priest faces a single allegation of abuse decades old, the situation is more complicated. 

Proofs erode over time, memories can fade, witnesses can die - official records of who was where on what day are lost. It can be difficult to legally prosecute someone for a crime decades in the past, and it can be just as difficult to mount a defense. For these reasons, the Church has often been reticent to call for a trial in cases decades old. Police, too, often find themselves unable to proceed when allegations are decades old.

That reticence leaves an accused priest - and his alleged victims - in a kind of limbo.

Neither the USCCB’s norms nor the Archdiocese of Chicago’s policies spell out what should happen to a priest if an allegation against him is judged to have the “semblance of truth,” but there is not enough evidence to proceed to a trial or penal process.  

Without a canonical trial, there can be neither formal conviction nor acquittal. Without an acquittal, it is often practically impossible for a bishop to return an accused cleric to ministry - although in the Archdiocese of Chicago, at least two priests who faced allegations from decades past have in fact been returned to ministry in recent years, after being cleared of allegations against them.

In many cases, however, the priest occupies a kind of no man’s land -- neither proven guilty nor exonerated. He is often assigned to a life of prayer and penance - living in a rectory, drawing a diocesan salary, but prohibited from public ministry. Some such men, depending on age, are urged or pressured into asking for voluntary laicization, and many do so.

Unless additional allegations emerge against Fr. Pfleger, or the allegation against him is exceptionally clear cut, he could well find himself in such a situation - unlikely to be completely convicted, and unlikely to return to ministry. Of course, it is possible he will face more allegations, and possible he will be proved clearly guilty, or clearly innocent. In those cases, the resolution of his case - one way or another - would be rather deliberate. 

But barring those possibilities, Pfleger could find himself in a canonical void in the years to come - unless he chooses, as have other men in his situation, to be laicized.

In any case, whether he is guilty or innocent - the expectation of Pfleger’s “parish cabinet”- that the priest will soon be “fully exonerated” - may well be hope in vain.  

Share a news tip