Abuser Priests Were “Off Duty,” Lawyer Argues

A central contention of the Catholic bishops’ “religious liberty” argument is that Catholics shouldn’t have to “check their faith at the door” when it comes to religious objections to contraception or same-sex marriage in public life. In other words, Catholics are always on duty, whether at church or at home or at work at Hobby Lobby or baking a wedding cake.

But the same thing doesn’t hold true for priests who molest children. They, apparently, are “off duty,” or so argues the Diocese of Trenton, NJ. A lawyer for the diocese told the Delaware Supreme Court that Rev. Terence McAlinden wasn’t “serving in his capacity as a priest” when he molested a New Jersey teenager he took on trips to Delaware.

When one of the justices asked how you could tell if a priest was on duty, the lawyer argued:

“Well, you can determine a priest is not on duty when he is molesting a child,  for example. … A priest abusing a child is absolutely contrary to the pursuit of his master’s business, to the work of a diocese.”

And the court bought it, ruling that Naples didn’t have a case because he couldn’t prove the trips were “church sanctioned.”

So I guess by that definition none of the 850 priests who have been defrocked by the Vatican for molesting minors were “on duty.” Problem solved.

The diocese’s dissembling is similar to the Vatican’s when it claims that the UN treaty against torture can’t be used to hold it accountable for priests who abused children because it only controls Vatican City and is not legally accountable for the priests and bishops around the world who are ordained by the church, paid by the church, get their health insurance and retirement benefits from the church, are housed by the church, and promoted through the ranks by the church.

Not to be outdone is retired Bishop Harry Flynn, who gave a deposition this week stating he couldn’t remember how he handled incidences of child abuse in his diocese over a 13-year period, despite the fact the one of the nation’s highest profile abuse suits of the 1990s occurred in his Twin Cities diocese. Flynn, Minnesota Public Radio reports, “led the national response to the clergy abuse scandal in 2002 and helped write the U.S. Catholic Church’s policy on abuse.” He said he couldn’t remember if he ever received a list of abusers from his predecessor, if he investigated cases of abuse, or why he never released the list of 33 priests “credibly accused” of abuse by the diocese. I guess he wasn’t on duty.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.