By JOANNE FOX
“Defrocked” is an incorrect term used in referring to clergy who should be removed from the priesthood.
“It’s as much a euphemism as using the expression ‘passed away’ for someone who has died,” explained Father Michael Erpelding, a canon (church) lawyer who is the adjutant judicial vicar on the tribunal for the Diocese of Sioux City.
Even the term laicization is not correct, Father Erpelding noted.
“Specifically, when a priest is no longer a member of the clergy, either because he requested it or because it was taken from him, he is ‘dismissed from the clerical state,’ because this is a juridical status,” he said.
Although a diocesan bishop can suspend a priest, he cannot remove him from the clerical state by an administrative decision, emphasized Gene Ulses, another canon lawyer who serves as a judge on the tribunal.
“Canon law is clear that removal from the clerical state cannot take place on a whim of a bishop,” he said. “Canon law spells out the rights of a priest, as well as the church’s rights in such matters.”
A priest can be removed from the clerical state either by Rome by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – in response to his own petition – or by the decision of a local tribunal.
Removal from the clerical state is a dispensation from the obligations of priestly ministry and celibacy, but it doesn’t mean that a priest is no longer a priest, Ulses added.
“The sacrament of holy orders can never be lost,” he said. “Instead, removal from the clerical state means that rights and obligations of the priesthood reserved for a priest are prohibited – celebrating Mass and hearing confessions, for example – and obedience to their bishop is no longer required.”
Ulses acknowledged that similarities can be drawn between removal from the clerical state and a declaration of nullity of a marriage.
“In both cases, the process is not simple, especially if there are circumstances in which a priest does not wish to be removed from the clerical state or one of the parties in a marriage does not want the relationship to end,” he said. “The only way these cases are not as complicated would be if the priest requests the removal to the lay state or both parties in the marriage are in favor of the declaration of nullity.”
In the less complicated cases, a diocesan tribunal may handle the process. When a priest resists removal from the clerical state, a great deal of evidence is to be gathered and it must be sent to Rome for a decision, Ulses stated.
Civil law recognizes the difference between pedophilia (sexual acts involving prepubescent children) and ephebophilia (sexual acts involving mid- to late-adolescents) and penalties will vary in each circumstance. Canon law must also take these factors into account when determining whether a priest should be removed from the clerical state, Ulses pointed out.
“Another consideration would be the psychological condition of the priest,” he said. “Again, this would be similar to civil law in which a person is deemed mentally impaired when a crime is committed.”
Father Erpelding worked on the case that sought to remove George McFadden, a priest of the Diocese of Sioux City, from the clerical state.
“We gathered the evidence and sent it to Rome, because McFadden did not want to be removed from the clerical state, yet his crimes were so egregious,” Erpelding said, referring to the credible claims against McFadden, accused of abusing more than 25 girls and boys, in dozens of civil lawsuits.
Rome made the decision that the just punishment for McFadden was to be relegated to a life of “prayer and penance,” Father Erpelding said.
“The 2005 report pointed to McFadden’s age and infirmity as contributing factors in their decision to not remove him from the clerical state,” he said. McFadden is now 93.