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Real consequences for real offenses

August 24, 2015

Last week in Hammond, Indiana, the pastor of St. Casimir Parish, Fr. William O’Toole, was confronted by police while walking around naked in the parish school. No kids were present. Thank God. The Diocese of Gary has apparently accepted O’Toole’s resignation as pastor and has referred him for a psychological evaluation. That’s good. Finding out whether O’Toole is insane (or was drunk, or was on drugs, or whatever) should be near the top of the to-do list here.

But looking down the road a bit, what plausible scenario exists, I wonder, whereby a pastor who walks around naked in his grade school (please, do re-read those words a few times) could ever be assigned to pastoral ministry—indeed, not just to ministry with kids, but with people? Okay, maybe if, say, O’Toole had been mugged by Satanists, injected with drugs, stripped naked, and locked in the school building where concerned passers-by noticed him and called authorities, maybe then I’d reconsider. But short of something like that? Sorry. I’m not seeing it.

I understand, I think, the sacramental and canonical implications of “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum” including the fact that priests who are mentally ill need—and have a canonical right to—professional care. But included in a priest’s right to support is not the right to engage in public ministry. That is a very different question.

In any case, suppose this stunt was not the result of mental illness? Suppose O’Toole is (as his own words about his “regrettable lack of judgment” seem to indicate), to a significant degree, responsible for his actions. What then?

Well, for starters, Canon 284 § 1 states that “Clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state …” while § 2 adds that “Clerics are to avoid those things which, although not unbecoming, are nevertheless foreign to the clerical state.” Surely walking around naked in a grade school falls under these strictures.

Next, Canon 1389 § 1 states that “A person who abuses an ecclesiastical power or function is to be punished according to the gravity of the act or omission, not excluding privation of office …” Think about this: had a civilian walked around after hours in a Catholic grade school, nakedly or otherwise, he would have been arrested for trespass. But O’Toole was not arrested because he was a parish official. In other words, his ecclesiastical office gave him access to the school and protected him from civil arrest for being present therein (again, naked or otherwise). Does that not make a prima facie case against O’Toole case for abuse of office?

Finally, Canon 1395 § 2 states (with my emphasis): “A cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.” The Catholic tradition holds the Sixth Commandment to be the centerpiece of the prohibitions against unchaste acts. CCC 2351, 2392-2400. If I have to say it, I will: I think a prima facie case for dismissal from the clerical state can be made against priests who walk around naked in elementary schools.

Of course, if this naked stroll through the school had been committed by the principal, a teacher, or a janitor, termination would have occurred immediately as would likely arrest. But while priests cannot be “fired” in the sense that that word means in most contexts, the legitimate canonical protections that sacramental ordination confers on clergy must not be the pretext by which a wholesome respect for the clerical state degenerates into virtual immunity from real consequences for reprehensible behavior.

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