This latest series of ti morceaux are focused upon the work of our Diocesan Tribunal. Remember, besides being the pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral Parish I also serve as the local Judicial Vicar, heading up the “judicial branch” of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
As I mentioned in the last morceau, most of the cases that the Church’s Tribunal system deals with are questions involving marriage annulment or dissolution. Yet there are a few other types of cases which come before the Tribunal every now and then. Once in a great while a Tribunal might adjudicate a dispute between persons or institutions in the Catholic Church that otherwise could have been settled – a much greater expense! – by the civil courts. I’m thinking of a well-known “real estate case” between two bishops a few years ago – well, it’s famous among canon lawyers, at least! – which involved a claim of significant mineral rights on the disputed property. In some larger dioceses the Tribunal serves as the diocesan arbitration and mediation office, handling “due process” cases and trying to resolve employee disputes and that sort of thing. In the largest dioceses there can sometimes be civil attorneys on staff, as well, serving as “in house counsel” to the bishop and diocesan administration.
While very, very clergy are actually accused of – and even fewer actually guilty of – some kind of misconduct, it is a sad fact that it occasionally happens. When charges of a true crime occurs, such as sexual misbehavior, theft or something like that, civil authorities are notified and the secular justice system takes over. Yet the Church also must take steps to deal with such situations, and so it is not unknown that a canonical trial might need to take place additionally, to make certain how a priest, if guilty, is to be punished. In proven cases of sexual sin with minors, of course, complete disqualification from ministry is immediate and permanent; other situations of wrongdoing have to be conducted in appropriate ways as well. Canon lawyers and the Tribunals staffed by them are typically charged with handling these types of processes and findings, just as they also assist in the defense of those accused of wrongdoing. As you might suspect, these often are terribly complicated and not just terrible – thank goodness they’re also rare!