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Canon Law and Lay Decision Making

Workshop Explores Accountability,
Governance, Use of Church Premises


  1. How can tribunals be impartial in areas of clergy sex abuse if they are hired by, paid for and report to the Bishop?
  2. If all lay structures such as parish and diocesan pastoral councils are only advisory, how do lay people really exercise their decision making voice?
  3. When are speakers or groups not permitted to use church property?
  4. What about convening structures like a lay synod? How does it work?
Fr. James Coriden
Fr. James Coriden (center) shares a light moment with program participants.

These were just some of the “burning questions” addressed by Fr. James Coriden, international canon law expert and co-editor of the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press, 2000); and a Cleveland panel of lay leaders and a former member of the diocesan tribunal. The group gathered for a workshop on Canon Law, Diocesan Tribunals and Lay Decision Making in the Church on April 13 in Cleveland.

Coriden extended personal apologies for the failure of canon lawyers as a whole to deal with
clergy sex abuse issues since “We had the provisions to deal with abuse canonically but we didn’t use them...what has occurred has shamed our church.” He then gave an overview of rights and responsibilities of laity in the Church:



The 1983 Code of Canon Law is a direct outgrowth of Vatican II. It is very different from prior codes because the “Christian faithful” and not only the clergy are now seen as the “primary players.” Earlier codes were basically handbooks for the guidance of the clergy. In Coriden’s view: canon 204 “undergirds and validates active lay participation in the governance of the church just as the Constitution on the Liturgy validates the “informed, active and
fruitful participation” in the church’s worship...(emphasis author’s).



Coriden reviewed what has come to be known as “The Catholic Bill of Rights” canons 208-223 which have priority over the rest because they possess a certain constitutional status, having been originally designed for that purpose. Some rights and responsibilities of Catholics include: freedom of expression, freedom to organize, to meet and to form associations. Other rights are the right to have access to church courts to vindicate and defend their rights and the right to due process if penalized. (c.221).

Coriden noted that the clergy sex abuse scandal is forcing tribunals to open their doors to criminal procedures. Up to now they have dealt primarily with marriage issues. He voiced the hope that the tribunals would eventually deal with other kinds of issues including violations of the rights of persons in the church to freedom of expression, association, etc.

Two final canons in this same section relate to the duty to support the church with time and talent as well as money and to promote social justice and assist the poor (c.222.2). The latter includes “the denunciation of injustices against the sons and daughters of God as well as the building of more just structures to prevent abuses,” said Coriden.

A section on the “Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful” (canons 224-231) addressed the obligation and rights of individuals and associations to work “so that the divine message of salvation is made known and accepted by all persons everywhere in the world. This obligation is even more compelling in those circumstances in which only through them can people hear the gospel and know Christ.” (c. 225.1)

The laity have the right to hold church offices and serve as experts and advisors in the church such as diocesan chancellors, judges, finance officers and members of diocesan and parish pastoral and finance councils. Pastors are also obliged to promote the role of laity in the church’s mission. Collaboration between laity and priests is reinforced by Vatican’ II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: “Every one of the faithful has the right and duty to exercise gifts of grace (charisms) in the church and in the world for the good of humanity and the building up of the Church.”


Financial accountability is supported in principle by canon 1287 which requires administrators of church property “to render an account to the faithful of the goods given to the church.” Canons elsewhere in the code protect ownership of church property by the parish acquiring it. Coriden noted that in U.S. corporate law, the diocese is a corporation that owns the property, but canonically the property belongs to the parish.

The Code also strongly asserts parental rights regarding the rearing and education of their children (c. 226.2, 774.2, 793). These presume parents’ right and duty to protect their children from harm.

Coriden concluded by saying, “the laity’s active participation in the life of the church, including their participation in decision making, far from being contrary to the Church’s regulations, is actually an integral part of the church order envisioned by both Vatican II and the Code.”



The panel included three other experts: Ellen Abraham, a mother and psychologist, who was assistant planning director for Catholic Charities for seven years before joining Governor George Voinovich’s staff for “Families First.” Mary Louise Keim, a mother and grandmother, who was a founding member of the Cleveland Diocesan Pastoral Council, and is currently the director of a neighborhood hunger cente, and Fr. Bob Sanson who is a pastor and canon lawyer who served on the Cleveland tribunal for 13 years.

Abraham strongly affirmed the value of the consultative process supported by canon law and gave an overview of the broad scope of Catholic charities and the boards on which lay Catholics now serve. Keim gave the history of the Cleveland Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC). Founded in 1965, it was the first such body in the United States. It includes 27 people including 13 representatives from Cleveland’s 13 Districts, two priests, four sisters, one deacon and six people appointed by the bishop in consultation with the DPC executive committee. It meets six times per year. The executive committee and the Bishop set the agenda. In Keim’s view such consultative bodies “work” only if people are willing to be assertive and see themselves as having a personal responsibility to work for the upbuilding of the Church. The first step is for people to become active in their parish pastoral councils and districts.

Fr. Bob Sanson said that while canon law was formerly viewed as “the straight jacket for the mystical body of Christ,” it has now become more pastorally oriented. Most canon lawyers are paid for by the diocese and employed by the bishop. With regard to clergy sex abuse they will serve as judges, prosecutors and advocates for priests who are accused. All allegations will be turned over to the civil authorities but for priests with credible allegations a canonical process will also take place.

Sanson encouraged people to work for scholarships so more lay people can get degrees in canon law: “There is a need for people to be good advocates who are independent of the bishop. There was a lot of secrecy around sexual abuse.” Presently lay people can be judges in the tribunal though a non-cleric’s decision must be reviewed by two clerics. However, this process may eventually become more efficient since soon mandatory appeal for all marriage decisions will be eliminated if three judges have already looked at a case.

Sanson likened intervention for removal of a priest or pastor by lay people and church authorities to the”tough love” of twelve step programs where failure to act is seen as enabling destructive behavior. Ways to bring concerns to legitimate authority include arbitration, conciliation, mediation and negotiation. The Canon Law Society website has many resources available including one called Protection of the Rights of Persons in the Church.


How can tribunals be impartial in areas of clergy sex abuse if they are hired by, paid for and report to the Bishop?
Sanson said canonical priest judges from outside the diocese will decide about removal from the priestly state. We now have uniform policies from Cleveland’s Denihan commission and the U.S. Bishops in which a diocesan lay review board monitors the implementation of norms for the removal or reinstatement of an accused priest. All allegations will be reported to civil authorities and the civil process will run its course. In the past, the tribunal often allowed civil courts to handle the problem and then the priest was treated, reinstated, removed or retired. A whole new set of norms is now in place and canon law workshops are being held all over to prepare canon lawyers to manage new cases. For non clergy personnel the lay board will make sure that diocesan personnel policies are followed as civil processes are set in motion.

If all lay structures such as parish and diocesan pastoral councils are only advisory, how do lay people really exercise their decision making voice?
Coriden noted that in canon law the consultative or advisory process is a very serious thing. It may be likened to the provincial of a religious community and her council. She must consult in certain matters and can only act in contradiction for the most serious reasons, and then the reasons must be given. The consultation must be open, thorough and it presumes people are fully informed.
In Coriden’s experience parish councils cover the gamut. Some are rubber stamps for the pastor while others make all important decisions about the parish with the pastor having one vote.

When are speakers or groups not permitted to use church property?
Coriden replied that this is a gray area. He affirmed the Bishops’ teaching office saying for example, it would only make sense to prevent abortion advocacy groups or advocates of atheistic Communism from meeting on Church premises. Most often dioceses are reluctant to make specific policies and people have freedom of expression to discuss issues on church premises.

What about convening structures like a lay synod? How does it work?
Coriden responded that there is no such thing as a lay synod. There is a diocesan synod which is set at the direction of the Bishop. It draws together priests and sisters but primarily laity to discuss matters of import for the diocese. They are lengthy processes requiring lots of planning. They can be very vitalizing for a diocese or “ pro forma.” This would be a good thing for the Diocesan Pastoral Council to lobby the Bishop for if it was thought timely.


Spring 2003



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