How Should the Church Address Clerical Misconduct With Adults?

Pope Francis has identified sexual activity in the clergy as a problem — and adult victims say it gives cover to sexual abuse.

Bishop Michael Cote of Norwich, Connecticut, celebrates the chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in 2015. Deacon Mark King said Bishop Cote told him Father Greg Mullaney was a case of ‘unintegrated sexuality,’ which was why he wasn’t permanently removed from the priesthood.
Bishop Michael Cote of Norwich, Connecticut, celebrates the chrism Mass at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in 2015. Deacon Mark King said Bishop Cote told him Father Greg Mullaney was a case of ‘unintegrated sexuality,’ which was why he wasn’t permanently removed from the priesthood. (photo: AP photo/ The Day, Tim Cook)

Standing at a payphone in Rome, calling his wife in tears, was not how the newly ordained Catholic deacon planned to end a 10-day pilgrimage in Rome.

On a misty night in February 2006, Deacon Mark King called his wife, Susan, to explain he had just escaped a drunken sexual attack from their pastor, who had subjected him to days of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances, at a restaurant.

Upon his return to the United States, Deacon King and his wife met with diocesan officials the next morning, where chancery officials prepared his statement, witnessed by the diocesan investigator and notarized by the chancellor of the diocese, documenting the aggressive sexual harassment, sexual advances and propositioning he had received from Father Greg Mullaney, then-pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Groton, Connecticut, during that trip.

Speaking to the Register more than 12 years later, Deacon King said he was very concerned that he might not be the only person targeted by the priest for sex. According to the deacon’s statement, the priest had made many immoral, suggestive and sexually disparaging comments about fellow clergy and laity, including parish employees.

 The Register has reviewed the document, which details the many times over 10 days the priest is alleged to have sexually propositioned the married deacon in aggressive terms, made unwanted sexual advances toward him, used demeaning sexual language about the deacon’s spouse, and crudely suggested the deacon have sexual intercourse with religious sisters, before drunkenly attacking the deacon from behind as he left the restaurant. However, the Kings told the Register that the subsequent diocesan investigation did not bring about justice. Father Mullaney was not permanently removed from ministry. The Kings said their bishop, Bishop Michael Cote of Norwich, told them the priest was a case of “unintegrated sexuality.”

The Kings said their lives were made extremely difficult by the experience, as the Church’s confidentiality rules left them vulnerable to rumors and conjecture in the parish. They said hostile parishioners blamed the deacon for the beloved priest’s absence, and the parish threw multiple events to honor the priest and petition his return.

“He was revictimized over and over and over again for speaking the truth and trying to help others,” Susan said about her husband.

They eventually left their home to relocate to North Carolina, when a new job opportunity arose for Deacon King.


Speaking Out

The deacon finally told his story in December to the New London Day after reading Bishop Cote’s interview with the Day in September, which stated he had not received any reports of clerical sexual assault as bishop.

“It’s a culture of shame, secrecy and power, and we deacons are the lowest on the [hierarchical] totem pole,” Deacon King said. “I keep thinking, ‘How would a [sexually abused] layperson in the pew ever come up against that?’ That thought has just ripped at me.”

In a statement to parishioners provided to the Register Dec. 12, Father Mullaney did not dispute Deacon King’s account but attributed his actions to “two deep and significant losses in my life,” the deaths of his father and best friend.

The priest said that after 18 months of subsequent treatment, his therapist “concluded that I had worked through and resolved the issues that had caused my transgressions. Upon my therapist’s recommendation, Bishop Cote gradually, over the course of several years, reintegrated me into pastoral ministry.”

Father Mullaney, who currently serves as pastor for two parishes, apologized to his current parishioners and to Deacon King and his family “for the effect that my behavior has had on him and his family. I would like to ask for your forgiveness and understanding in the hope that, with God’s grace, and not relying only on our own resources, we can together journey toward healing and reconciliation.”

In a statement provided to the Register Dec. 12, Wayne Gignac, director of communications for the Diocese of Norwich, said “the incident involving Father Gregory Mullaney and Deacon Mark King was addressed swiftly 12 years ago. As Father Mullaney has stated to his parishioners, he has accepted responsibility for his actions and has resolved any underlying issues related to this matter to the bishop’s satisfaction. He is a priest in good standing.”


Adult Vulnerability

Pope Francis has convoked a worldwide meeting of the heads of Catholic bishops’ conferences, this February in Rome, to address the clergy sex-abuse crisis. The meeting itself remains focused on the sexual abuse of minors, however, even as news reports worldwide indicate that the prevalence of sexual abuse of adults is starting to come out in the open.

The revelations of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s predatory behavior, combined with the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report and other recent disclosures of clergy sexual misconduct, have provoked widespread concern that a “culture of predation” on minors and adults is linked together, facilitated by some bishops and religious superiors turning a blind eye to celibacy violations and sexual aggression.

Pope Francis, in a recent interview, said he is “worried” about active homosexual behavior in the priesthood and religious life, adding he rebuked a religious superior who tried justifying homosexual behavior as a legitimate affection in priestly and religious life.

Deacon King, in his sworn statement, alleged that Father Mullaney boasted to him about his knowledge of the sexual lives of certain priests and bishops.

There is no John Jay study on the clerical sexual abuse of adults in the Church, but the Sydney Morning Herald reported some researchers believe four women and two men have been victimized for every child.

“We are here, but no one is looking for us,” Lea Karen Kivi, president of Angela’s Heart Communications and author of Abuse in the Church: Healing the Body of Christ, told the Register.

Kivi said a spiritual director attempted to sexually abuse her during a women’s retreat. Other women have told her their own stories — one housekeeper was raped and impregnated by a priest who said he needed to “reverence” her body; another woman said a priest told her that she would be sinning if she did not satisfy the priest’s urges; and still another said a priest groomed her by invoking St. Francis and St. Clare’s friendship.

She said men and women have no guidance in how to report what happened to them to Church authorities, due to the lack of clear abuse policies, procedures and canons that deal with adult abuse.


‘We’re All Vulnerable’

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has competence over cases involving the sexual abuse of minors and “vulnerable adults.” But the definition of “vulnerable adult” in canon law is defined narrowly as a person who “habitually lacks the use of reason,” which doesn’t apply in the vast majority of cases where a priest initiates sexual conduct with a woman or another adult man.

“We’re all vulnerable — why doesn’t [the Commission for the Protection of Minors] just say ‘for the protection of the faithful’?” Kivi said.

At the U.S. bishops’ November assembly in Baltimore, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who is the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, suggested that the Church’s norms for dealing with sex abuse should be updated in canon law to include adults “who can be the victims of abuse of power.”

Understanding that adults are vulnerable to the abuse of power by clergy is reflected already in some civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Minnesota state law prohibits clergy from alleging as a defense that the other party consented to sex.

This helped to bring to justice in 2018 a priest, Father Jacob Bertrand of the Diocese of San  Diego, who had sexually abused a young woman in his spiritual care.

The 2014 directives on sex abuse instituted by the Church in Malta — which is headed by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former point man for prosecuting cases of clergy sexual abuse — share some similarities with the Minnesota civil law: The Maltese Ecclesiastical Province’s directives state explicitly that sexual contact or sexualized behavior between a “pastoral functionary” (including bishops, priests, deacons, religious and anyone involved in pastoral ministry) and adults in a pastoral relationship “is considered to be always abusive, whether with or without consent.”

Catholic News Agency reported that the Congregation for Clergy is starting in some cases to apply Canon 1326, which deals with abuse of power, such as in instances where clerics sexually coerce seminarians, parish employees or parishioners.


Canons and Culture

In February, eyes will be on how Pope Francis changes canon law and/or implements existing canonical provisions to address the sex-abuse crisis.

Carolyn Warner, a political science professor at Arizona State University who has researched the Catholic Church’s history of canon law on sex abuse, told the Register that the Church historically had severe punishments for clerical sex abuse, particularly when it involved sodomy. But changes in canon law over the past 100 years, she said, have limited the Church’s ability to deal effectively with the sex-abuse crisis and negatively shaped its clerical culture.

In 1922, following the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Warner said, the Church put clerical sexual-misconduct cases under strict secrecy, or confidentiality, in reaction to conflicts with hostile secular governments in Europe. This limited bishops and priests’ reporting of sexual misconduct to police or parishioners. In 2010, a new guideline was introduced under Benedict XVI stating that the civil law should always be followed.

Another change implemented in 1917, and still enshrined in the most recent 1983 Code of Canon Law, reflected the idea that a pastoral process of healing the offender ought to be followed before resorting to a canonical judicial process.

“They have a very strong belief in the redemptive power of forgiveness,” she said.

But Warner explained this approach is primarily concerned with the welfare of the priest and does not take into account the victim’s need for justice.

“The Pope needs to realize forgiveness is not going to do it — there need to be consequences, as well.” Warner suggested that the Pope should revise canon law to restore the ability of bishops to remove priests after a canonical trial, an authority lost in the 1983 revision, while providing the bishops with sentencing guidelines for various canonical crimes.


Law Requires Fidelity

However, Philip Gray, president and canon lawyer for the St. Joseph Foundation, told the Register that he was cautious about making changes to canon law other than implementing a process for removing bishops for negligence if they fail to take the required actions when cases of clergy sexual misconduct come to light.

Gray said that if bishops knew the Pope would revoke their office for their own failures or negligence that harm the faithful, more would enforce the law, particularly if the laity in the diocese knew their options under canon law and how to demand the Church’s justice.

“The solution is not to change the system; the solution is fidelity,” he said.

Gray maintained the Church’s existing canon law can handle any sexual-misconduct complaint.

Bishops have judicial processes or administrative processes they can use to deal with these crimes, and, depending on the nature and severity of the crime, can dole out a variety of penalties, such as removal from ministry or even censures as severe as excommunication.

Sexual abuse against minors under canon law, Gray added, is considered equal to desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, so the canonical penalties are more severe than for cases involving misconduct with adults. “Usually canon law says there must be a just penalty in proportion to the offense,” he said.

In the Diocese of Rochester, New York, recent allegations of adult sexual abuse reported by the Register were investigated and substantiated and led to a priest’s removal from ministry.

“The Diocese of Rochester is committed to creating a safe environment for all, most especially our children, young people and vulnerable adults,” Bishop Salvatore Matano said in a Dec. 9 diocesan announcement.

While some bishops have applied the law well, Gray said, too many bishops don’t sufficiently follow the Church’s law in church-closure cases, pastoral-removal cases, marriage-annulment cases — and in sexual-misconduct cases.

“In most of the hundreds and hundreds of cases I handle,” he said, “at least a very large percentage involve either negligence or malice on the part of the ordinary to follow the law.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.