NEW YORK (AP) — Parents upset by the admissions policy at a parochial school. Clergy and parishioners at odds over use of their building. A priest resisting a transfer to another parish.
It was once assumed that disagreements like these in the Roman Catholic Church would end one way: with the highest-ranking cleric getting the last word.
But that outcome is no longer a given as Catholics, emboldened following the clergy abuse scandals that erupted a decade ago this month, have sought another avenue of redress.
In recent years, clergy and lay people in the United States have increasingly turned to the church's internal legal system to challenge a bishop's or pastor's decision about even the most workaday issues in Catholic life, according to canon lawyers in academia, dioceses and in private practice. Sometimes, the challengers even win.
Regarding bishops' often contentious decisions to close parishes, the liberal reform group FutureChurch posts a guide on its website called “Canonical Appeals for Dummies” on seeking Vatican intervention to stay open.
The reasons for the uptick are complex and reach back decades, involving changes in the church and broader society. Canon lawyers say the American concern for individual freedoms likely has played a role. So has the explosion of information on the Internet. But the change is also an unexpected consequence of the clergy molestation crisis, with the scandal exerting an influence far beyond cases that directly involve abusers.