The norms approved by the Bishop's Conference of the United States and given recognitio by the Holy See for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests or deacons, include two measures that could be described as zero-tolerance for sexual abuse.
- Those guilty of such abuse are to be permanently removed from ecclesiastical ministry. "When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants."
- When there is adequate evidence of sexual abuse of minors, the cleric shall be removed from ministry until the investigative process is completed. "When there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith shall be notified. The bishop/eparch shall then apply the precautionary measures mentioned in CIC, canon 1722, or CCEO, canon 1473—i.e., remove the accused from the sacred ministry or from any ecclesiastical office or function, impose or prohibit residence in a given place or territory, and prohibit public participation in the Most Holy Eucharist pending the outcome of the process."
The first of these provisions has substantial roots already in the 1917 code of canon law, which provides in canon 2359, that clerics guilty of a crime against the sixth commandment with a minor under the age of sixteen, are to be suspended, and in more serious cases deposed from the clerical state. This seems to be perfectly reasonable for the sake of the common good, given how harmful such crimes are to youth and to the Church. And speaking from the side of the clerics, my own feeling is that if I were ever to commit such a crime, I would likely feel obliged in conscience to give up the ministry. Though admittedly, it may be easy to feel this way, being confident that I will never do such a thing.
The second provision is somewhat vague, and probably has to be that way. In the process of investigating an accusation, one may find that the accusation "seems true", is probable, or "credible". Once a probable opinion of guilt has been formed, the provision to protect others and uphold the sanctity of the ministry by removing the accused cleric from ministry until the investigative process is completed seems fairly reasonable.
That an accusation "seems true", or is probable, presupposes some investigation, at least brief, of the accusation in question, cannot always be very quickly ascertained. I get the impression, though, that in some dioceses of the USA, when any accusation is received that is taken seriously enough to begin any real investigative process, the cleric is immediately put on administrative leave. If this is true, it may be ultimately counter-productive, encouraging those in persons of authority to try to avoid hearing accusations that might be true but are not very likely to be so. Again, review boards may come under pressure to make a quick decision regarding the credibility of an accusation. If the accusation seems to them very probably false, but with some small chance of being true, they are in somewhat of a dilemma: they can decide that the accusation is credible, which requires putting the accused cleric on administrative leave and possible damaging his reputation; or they can decided that the accusation is not credible, meaning that it will not be further investigated. But there will surely be middle cases, where after a very brief preliminary investigation, there remain insufficient grounds to take any action against the accused, but sufficient grounds to justify further investigation.
Guilt proven beyond doubt may justify imposition of penalties without exception, and probable guilt may justify measures taken without exception to safe guard children, but enough possibility of guilt to warrant further investigation does not always justify any immediate administrative measures.
Forcing a black-white decision (probably guilty on the one hand, or surely not guilty on the other hand) too quickly will probably lead both to injustice against some persons judged probably guilty who should not have been, and to injustice against further victims who should and could have been protected.