Canon Law 101: What It Is and What It Isn't

Claims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and Church employees continue to emerge throughout the world. No continent or social class is immune to this area of institutional abuse. Pope Francis has been unable to ignore the calls for investigations, compensation and accountability.  The internal safeguards of religious institutions have failed to protect the most vulnerable.

 The term “canon law” is referenced within many of these news articles. A moving interview with Mary McAleese, a former two-term President of Ireland and devout Catholic, delved into work as a civil lawyer and law professor as well as her ongoing focus on canon law. Five years ago she explained that the impetus for her advanced studies was the ongoing sexual abuse scandal and the role of the Catholic Church in areas of social justice.  She obtained a Master’s Degree in Canon Law and was pursuing a PhD in the same field from Gregorian University in Rome.  Ms. McAleese continued:

"I was struck by what investigators said about canon law and canon lawyers. It was a scathing indictment: In not one single incidence of sexual abuse had canon law been able to do anything on the victim’s side, nothing useful or helpful."  .


In my own law practice, I have handled claims of sexual abuse by clergy; the primary defense attorney’s curriculum vitae included specialization in canon law.  


 So what is “canon law” and how does it fit into our own civil and criminal legal systems, if at all?


            Canon law is the codified authority that governs a particular church.  The Roman Catholic Church has its own canon law. In addition, a number of other religions have their own canon law.  The Anglican Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and other independent Eastern Christianity religions, also have their particular canon law.  Canon law embraces both the ecclesiastical authority of a church as well as its “divine” or natural elements.  The study of canon law in many ways can be likened to the roadmap of the history and teachings of the church.


            The “Code of Canon Law” for the Roman Catholic Church consists of an Introduction and seven “Books.”  Each Book addresses a broader topic, such as “General Norms” in Book I and “The Teaching Function of the Church” in Book III.  Within each Book there are separate “Titles” and then sub-headings called “Chapters. In fact, the layout of the “Code of Canon Law” very much resembles a statutory compilation, such as a state’s revised statutes or a city’s ordinance book.


            Books VI  (“Sanctions of the Church”) and VII (“Processes”) identify wrongdoing and the particular Church forums intended to adjudicate these matters.  The provisions of Book VII mirror a typical table of contents for the rules of procedure and evidence in any given non-religious jurisdiction.  The “Code of Canon Law” authorizes tribunals in certain instances and penalties that may be imposed.


            From a practical standpoint, canon law does not (and should not) pre-empt or override civil and criminal legal systems.  Rather, canon law might be better viewed as an internal “employee manual” with its introduction to the organization’s function and code of conduct as well as its description of employee discipline and dismissal processes.  


            In the coming years, clergy abuse case law may well include increased efforts by lawyers to use compliance (or lack thereof) with canon law as evidence of meeting the standard of pastoral care, as a basis for punitive or exemplary damages or somehow as a mitigating factor. The “higher authority” in clergy abuse cases remains the appellate courts of any given jurisdiction---not the internal canon law conclaves of any church.



Mari Bush