Trials where the church is judge, jury

Times Staff Writer

This is as close to a courtroom as Daniel Donohue can hope to get: a nondescript room in a church office building, where three priests on Friday carried out a legal procedure that dates to the 12th century.

The experience was at once ordinary and archaic. A tape recorder sat next to him, beeping occasionally. Behind him sat the “promoter of justice,” the New York Archdiocese’s equivalent of a district attorney. When Donohue walked in, he was asked to sign an oath not to discuss the case again.

Donohue, who five years ago accused a priest of sexual abuse, went into the trial with deep reservations. But when he emerged four hours later, he said he felt something important had taken place.


“It wasn’t short and it wasn’t sweet and it wasn’t sugarcoated. There were tears,” said Donohue, 42, who refused to sign the oath and was free to speak to reporters afterward. The accused man, Msgr. Charles Kavanagh, has refused to comment on the trial, citing the Vatican’s request for confidentiality.

The Roman Catholic Church moved the canonical trial of Kavanagh, 69, from New York to this mill city to deter publicity. It is one in a series of such trials that have been arranged by the Vatican over the last two years to give priests accused of sexual abuse the opportunity to defend themselves.

Five years after the church sex-abuse scandal erupted, millions of dollars have been paid out in settlements to victims, and hundreds of priests have been defrocked. But of more than 5,000 Catholic priests who have been accused, only 300 have been tried in civilian courts, said Terry McKiernan, a researcher at

That has left “literally thousands of these men in this awkward limbo,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests. But for victims, he said, a church trial promises little satisfaction.

“They’ve been hurt by a predatory priest and a series of cold-hearted church bureaucrats,” Clohessy said. “Why would they voluntarily submit to a secretive process run by a series of cold-hearted church bureaucrats?”

For decades in the U.S., church tribunals have served one function: to annul marriages.

Ladislas Orsy, a scholar of canon law at Georgetown University, said canonical trials take the tone of an investigation. They are dominated by a panel of three to five judges who “try to ferret out what happened exactly, and have great freedom to do so,” Orsy said. The accused is represented by a canon lawyer, who faces off with a prosecutor, known as the “promoter of justice.” Out of concern for the welfare of the accused, the trials are confidential.


Canonical trials “do not correspond to the modern perception of jurisprudence,” Orsy said. “In a way, we remain stuck in earlier ages. For instance, justice delayed is not justice. In the church we often delay justice.”

Rules adopted in 2002 allow the church to remove accused priests if there is sufficient evidence that abuse occurred. When a priest maintains his innocence, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith can opt to refer the case to a tribunal in Rome or in the U.S. If the priest is found guilty, he can be removed from active ministry or from the priesthood entirely.

After the church abuse scandal first made national headlines, Donohue contacted New York’s Cardinal Edward M. Egan to report a six-year relationship that he said began when he was 14 and enrolled in Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, where Kavanagh was rector.

Donohue said the relationship was physical, with hand-holding and hugs that lingered too long. He has given two examples of sexual abuse: one during his sophomore year, when Donohue said he was lying on a couch in Kavanagh’s office and the priest lay on top of him, and another two years later, when Kavanagh climbed into bed with him.

The Bronx district attorney did not pursue the case, then 20 years old, because the statute of limitations had expired. But Egan suspended Kavanagh from ministry in 2002. A powerful and popular figure in New York, Kavanagh protested.

Of the 10 cases of alleged abuse forwarded to the Vatican from the New York Archdiocese, Kavanagh’s is the only one that was referred for a trial, said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for Egan. The results of the trial will be made public when the judges finish deliberating, a process that could take weeks or months.


Donohue, a father of four who lives in Portland, Ore., said he was not sure what to make of the news that the church, rather than the state, was prosecuting Kavanagh. In particular, he balked at signing the confidentiality oath.

“My abuse would never have happened if there hadn’t been any secrecy,” he said. “This is the same secrecy. People have signed these [oaths] for years and years and years. I want to laugh at it. What universe are you from?”

He went back and forth, but finally decided to participate.

“I didn’t have any other path forward,” he said. “That’s the strange reality.”

Before he answered any questions Friday morning, he said, he asked each judge to describe when they became aware of how pervasive sexual abuse was in the church, and what they did about it. Their answers were satisfying enough that he agreed to tell his story.

“I can say they understood,” he said. “At that moment, in that room, there was a clear understanding of what was at stake.”