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The Problem with Religious Orders

Of all the Christian faith traditions, only the Catholic Church has religious orders.  Most do not make any distinction between ordained clergy. Orthodox Christian clergy are divided into monastic and diocesan but that’s about it.  

In the Catholic Church, a religious order is characterized by the particular vows each member professes, the order’s independence from a bishop, and the particular charism that serves as a type of mission statement for the work in which the order is engaged.  Typically, religious orders are founded by men and women recognized as saints by the Catholic Church. For example, the Society of Jesus or Jesuits was founded by Ignatius of Loyola, the Salesians were founded by John Bosco and the Order of Preacher or Dominicans was founded by St. Dominic.

In the context of my work as an attorney and abuse advocate, what is most important is that these religious orders are often involved with service to children.  For example, Jesuits, Dominicans, Marists, and the Christian Brothers are all known for their work in Catholic schools. In the United States, historically Catholic schools have been operated and administered by these religious orders.  As would be expected, many sexual abuse cases involve Catholic schools and the religious orders which operate them.  

Yet, these same religious orders have flown under the radar of law enforcement officials, elected officials, and the media.  There is scarcely a mention of them in last summer’s Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. The same could be said about earlier grand jury reports in Suffolk County (NY), Philadelphia, and Allentown.  

All of the compensation funds created in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have excluded consideration of religious orders from a hearing in spite of the fact that many abuse cases stem from the religious orders themselves.  Only the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has signaled a willingness to consider religious orders in their yet to be created compensation fund.

Therefore, it’s important to examine why such little attention has been paid to religious orders and the role they’ve played in the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis.  The following are a few factors that I believe play into this exclusion:

1) Religious Orders are Structured Differently from Dioceses

The structure of an archdiocese or a diocese in the United States is generally uniform and follows the guidelines set forth in the church’s Code of Canon Law (church law).  Each archdiocese has a clear hierarchy and record keeping is meticulous (the Diocese of Buffalo may be one of the few exceptions).  The archdiocesan and diocesan structures are rigid and uniform across the country with an archbishop or bishop (corporate sole) in charge, followed by a Vicar General who serves as the archbishop/bishop’s second in command, then followed by the Chancellor who is tasked with the record keeping.  The Chancellor is the only position in the hierarchical structure that may be filled by a layperson (not a priest or deacon).  

Religious orders have no such rigid structure.  In fact, each religious order is construed as the founder and its present members deem appropriate.  In the United States, the person in charge may hold the title of Provincial or Superior General. However, that person does not have the same canonical or civil authority as an archbishop or bishop.  In fact, for a religious order to serve in any area of the country, the order must first obtain the permission of the ruling archbishop or bishop and its priests must receive faculties (permission) from that same archbishop or bishop in order to perform the services of the Catholic Church.  

In a typical archdiocese/diocese, the parish is the main entity and is served by priests and clergy appointed by the archbishop/bishop.  Religious orders only serve parishes that have been ceded to them by the diocesan authorities. Normally, however, they are engaged in service in schools, hospitals, and social service programs.  

2) Members of Religious Orders take vows while Diocesan Priests promise obedience

The vows of the religious order vary from order to order but generally include three main vows-poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Diocesan priests promise obedience, on two separate occasions (separately at diaconate and priestly ordination) to the bishop. This promise of obedience is binding under all circumstances and comes into play in priestly assignments, priestly life, and most recently, the abuse crisis.  The most infamous case of the latter concerned Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles when he objected to the release of priest personnel files based on the promise of obedience. In Mahony’s understanding of obedience, any communication between a priest and his bishop is privileged must like that between a lawyer and a client.  (Mahony’s assertion was widely criticized and dismissed as having no basis in canon or civil law.)

3) Members of Religious Orders are transient where Diocesan Priests are permanently connected to the geographical area of an archdiocese/diocese

This is significant in terms of record keeping and relationships formed with Catholics.  Some religious may remain in a parish only long enough to give a lecture or a parish retreat.  Other religious may remain in a school for a specified period of time before they are moved to another part of the country.  Diocesan priests must remain within the confines of the archdiocese/diocese unless they obtain explicit permission to leave. This permission is granted only by the archbishop/bishop.  In many of the abuse cases, priests have been transferred (excardinated) to another diocese in order to keep secret that abuse incidents. Boston’s Paul Shanley is perhaps the most infamous example of this.  Shanley was allowed to leave the Archdiocese of Boston for a diocese in California. In many instances, the place where the offending priest is transferred had no idea of the priest’s abusive past. Thanks to the church’s record keeping, sex abuse lawsuits have revealed that are able to obtain these records have shown this to be the case on numerous occasions.

4) Religious Order finances vs. Archdiocesan/diocesan finances

The financial records of an archdiocese/diocese may be difficult to obtain but they are usually in good order when they are obtained through court proceedings or federal bankruptcy petitions.  The finances of religious orders are much murkier. Some of the smaller religious orders have headquarters overseas while others’ financial conditions vary from province to province. Religious orders rely on donations from people who appreciate their services while the finances of an archdiocese/diocese rely on parishioners’ weekly giving.  

There are more differences between the two but in my experience assisting survivors of sexual abuse the religious orders remain a real threat to the safety of our children because of their lack of transparency and accountability.  

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