BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
A GROUP of priests has challenged the bishops over the Church's controversial child protection guidelines on the grounds that they are in breach of canon law.
The National Conference of Priests (NCP) has thrown down the gauntlet to the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales over the Nolan Report, a review of child protection procedures in the Church published in 2001.
During the NCI' annual meeting at Trinity and All Saints College in Leeds last week, they voted that procedures produced by the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (Copca) should be submitted to Rome for the formal recognitio needed to make them canonically binding.
The priests are aware that the Nolan Report is currently in breach of the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church because it requires a priest to take "administrative leave" as soon as he is accused.
Critics have also described the report as "Draconian" because it demands glassfronted confessionals, operates a de facto reversal of the burden of proof and employs presumptive language — referring to a complainant as a "victim" and an allegation as a "disclosure". The NCP wants the bishops to follow the example of America's bishops, who last year applied to Rome to have their own child protection guidelines brought into line with canon law.
Since publication, the Nolan Report has become deeply unpopular among priests, some of whom believe that it effectively strips them of their civil, as well as canonical rights.
Some feel that a fair balance between the rights of the complainants and the rights of the accused has not been struck. Canon lawyers have suggested it was only a matter of time before a priest took a case against the English and Welsh bishops to the Vatican.
It emerged this week that the Canon Law Society of Great Britain made a formal submission to the bishops' conference in November to voice strong concerns that "due process" was not being followed under Nolan, The Society did not receive a reply.
Fr Francis Marsden of St Joseph's Church, Adlington, Lancashire, was one of four priests who proposed the NCP motion. He said: "The issue is really one of due process. It's not departing from the fact that a priest who commits a criminal offence should be handed over to the police. It's not in any way to damage existing child protection strictures.
"There seems to be a lot of confusion in this country as to how the Copca norms are going to he promulgated."
He said that the Holy See granted the US bishops particular derogations frOm canon law, allowing them to deal more quickly with problems.
"The bishops' conference doesn't have authority and has to go to Rome for the recommendations to be canonically binding on every diocese and on every bishop," he said.
"It's a question of legislative authority. If Manchester Council, for example. said `We're going to legalise cannabis', the police would still be expected to make arrests for cannabis use and supply — the council wouldn't have the appropriate authority. The bishops' conference is in a similar position with Rome ... They need a mandate h-nm Rome for anything outside their authority,"
Rome can make any procedures binding, can issue demgations to speed up the process and maintains the rights of priests to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. But if due process in canon law is not followed, a convicted priest could appeal against laicisation. In Melbourne, Australia, duce priests who were imprisoned for offences against children appealed to
Continued on Page Three
Editorial comment: Page 9