Another day, another priest, another NYTs report

If you read a daily newspaper somewhere in the United States, other than New York City, and you care deeply about the latest wave of clergy sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church, then you may have spotted the following Associated Press report about the case of Father Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul of India. Here is the top of that story, as it appears on the website of USA Today:

A Roman Catholic priest was in his native India in 2007 when he was charged with sexually assaulting a teenage girl at his former post in Minnesota. Three years later, he is still serving as a priest in India with the blessing of his local bishop.

And the Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul has no intention of returning to the U.S. to answer the charges. His bishop said Jeyapaul handles paperwork for schools in the diocese office and does not work with children.

"We cannot simply throw out the priest, so he is just staying in the bishop's house, and he is helping me with the appointment of teachers," said the Most Rev. A. Almaraj of the Diocese of Ootacamund in southern India. "He says he is innocent, and these are only allegations. ... I don't know what else to do."

The Vatican weighed in Monday, saying that officials there thought Jeyapaul should be removed from the priesthood and that they cooperated with efforts to extradite him to the U.S. -- even providing authorities with his exact location in India. But they said the bishop in India refused to remove him and instead sentenced the priest to a year in a monastery after holding his own church trial.

The AP report frames this tragic story in the context of a growing reality -- foreign priests, under the legal authority of their bishops back in their homelands, serving in U.S. parishes because of the shortage of American priests.

Now, if you live in the media corridor between Washington and Boston, or work in a mainstream newsroom on Planet Earth, there is a very good chance that you read the New York Times version of this story instead of, or in addition to, the AP. The framing device in this story is a little bit different, to say the least. In fact, the accused priest's name does not even appear until the eighth paragraph.

See if you can get detect the main theme in this one, starting at the very top:

A Catholic priest who has been criminally charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Minnesota six years ago is still working in his home diocese in India despite warnings to the Vatican from an American bishop that the priest continued to pose a risk to children, according to church documents made public on Monday.

The documents show that the American bishop warned the Vatican that the priest was accused of molesting two teenage girls whose trust he gained by promising to discuss their interest in becoming nuns. A county attorney in Minnesota is seeking to extradite the priest from India in a criminal case that involves one of the girls, who said the priest had forced her to perform oral sex and had threatened her and her family.

The case took place during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, who has recently come under fire for his role in cases of sexually abusive priests in Germany and Wisconsin. The case was handled after the Vatican clarified and streamlined its procedures in 2001 to respond to accusations of sexual abuse by priests. In the midst of a growing scandal, the Vatican has sought to defend the pope by pointing out that he was both an architect and a promoter of these procedures.

The next two sentences are crucial:

But the Vatican also says it defers to local bishops to decide how to treat accused priests, leaving it exposed to criticism that the church is not doing enough to rein in sexually abusive priests.

In 2006, the Vatican recommended that the priest simply be monitored, a document shows. A lawyer for the Holy See said in a statement that the Vatican had recommended that the priest be defrocked, but that canon law specifies that the decision rests with the local bishop. The bishop in India sentenced the priest to a year of prayer in a monastery rather than seeking his removal from the priesthood, according to documents and interviews.

Well now. Does the Vatican "defer" these decisions -- as in to "put off," "postpone" or "shelve" -- or is Rome's claim that there is a canon law that governs this matter factually accurate? How are the canons affected by the fact that the accusation is in a different country from the priest's home base, in terms of his ordination and line of authority?

Now, the Vatican says that it has cooperated in efforts to extradite Jeyapaul so that he can face the charges in America, but that the local bishop in India is not cooperating.

So, what would be the logical next step? My assumption is that Rome would try to get a higher authority in India -- thus, honoring the canon laws -- to act.

This leads us to a breaking story in the Times of India:

Roman Catholic priest Rev Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul, facing charges of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Minnesota, was today asked by the Archbishop of Madras to return to the US for further investigations.

As the Diocese of Udhagamandalam, the home Diocese of Jeypaul which oversees the priest of Indian origin, said it is probing the matter in detail, the Archbishop of Madras Rev Fr M Chinnappa said he has spoken to the Bishop of Ootacamund today to take action against the priest. Jeyapaul is currently staying in the hill town in Tamil Nadu.

"I have asked the Bishop of Ooty to comply with the demands of the case. Jeyapaul must return to the US if necessary for further investigations. He has to oblige. There is no way out," Chinnappa said in Chennai.

So here are the two crucial questions that need to be asked, in the wake of these rather different New York Times and Associated Press reports. Is this a story about a bishop in India who has chosen to "defer" a decision about an accused priest, or a story about a pope who has elected to "defer" actions on this matter? The second question flows right out of the first: Does this canon law actually exist? Is the Vatican, in other words, lying?

I know that canon laws are quite complicated. But there seems to be a crucial fact here that needs to be verified.

Meanwhile, would the Times want to see the fine details of canon law crushed by an all-powerful papacy if, let's say, the accused priest was a prominent progressive theologian at a major progressive American university? Or would the Times, at that point, want to see the powers of the local bishop honored?

Just asking.

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