Conference Highlights: Vulnerable Persons in Canon Law and Pastoral Life - Saint John's Seminary
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Conference Highlights: Vulnerable Persons in Canon Law and Pastoral Life

August 9, 2022

More than 50 priests, seminarians, and lay ministers gathered at Saint John’s Seminary on July 21, 2022 for the first in a new series of conferences and seminars being launch this year. Clergy from Boston, Worcester, and Fall River, as well as Burlington and Providence made up 80% of the audience. The topic: “Vulnerable Persons in Canon Law and Pastoral Life.” Participants spent the morning and afternoon in Brighton listening to lectures, praying together, and discussing the topic in working groups.

After morning prayer in the seminary chapel, the Very Rev. Stephen E. Salocks, ’80, rector of Saint John’s Seminary, welcomed the attendees to Brighton and offered some brief remarks to introduce the conference. A professor of Sacred Scripture at Saint John’s Seminary for more than three decades, Father Salocks turned to the Old and New Testaments to orient the day’s discussions of the protection of vulnerable adults in the Church’s Code of Canon Law as well as in the day-to-day ministry of clergy and lay parish leaders. Amid the conversations and lectures that shaped the day, Father Salocks reminded the attendees that “God’s word makes it clear that we have the responsibility to care for vulnerable people and to communicate God’s love to them.” The Old Testament, particularly the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, show that love protected by law: Israelite law demanded justice for and protection of the vulnerable, especially the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.

After the introduction came the day’s keynote lecture, delivered by the Most Reverend Mark O’Connell, auxiliary bishop of Boston. Bishop O’Connell put forward two questions regarding vulnerable persons in canon law. The first was factual: whom does canon law currently regard as a vulnerable person? The second aimed at reform: Whom should canon law regard as a vulnerable person?

The answer to the first is simple: in 2019’s Vos Estis Lux Mundi, Francis defined a “vulnerable adult” as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of liberty.” Bishop O’Connell argued strongly that this definition is inadequate; it fails to consider complicating factors, from spiritual authority to prestige and position, which might render a person vulnerable to abuse. In the later half of the talk, the bishop exhorted attendees to consider what might be a more adequate definition of “vulnerable persons,” one which would render canon law more effective and allow the Church to reckon more effectively with abuse. The talk concluded with a series of case studies from church and parish life.

Following Mass and lunch, Rear Admiral Daniel O’Toole, a retired chief judge of the Department of the Navy, picked up the themes of Bishop O’Connell’s lecture with his own discussion of “The Coercive Influence of Power and Authority.” Admiral O’Toole analyzed a handful of cases from the secular and religious worlds, including a notorious 1991 sexual assault case. In the Church, he observed, a half-dozen sources of power often intersect in a priest or bishop, from the legitimate authority of office, to personal charisma and expertise, to the unique spiritual authority accorded to a clergymen. All of these, Admiral O’Toole speculated, can exert a coercive effect on an individual, and ought to be taken into account when considering which adults might be “vulnerable,” both legally and in personal relationships. By highlighting “risk factors” that exacerbate the likelihood of abuse, like elitism, sexism, and wealth, Admiral O’Toole also drew attention to different ways cases of abuse might be detected and prevented.

Following Admiral O’Toole’s presentation, Melanie Takinen, associate director of programs for VIRTUS, led a one-hour workshop on setting and maintaining boundaries in ministry to vulnerable persons. After a brief presentation of the concept of “boundaries” and the support they offer to effective ministry, she posed a series of test cases to the participants and invited them to ascertain what appropriate boundaries in the given circumstance might be. Participants appreciated how her presentation dovetailed with the two more theoretical speakers. One noted that she endorsed “a broader understanding of vulnerability than is found in Canon law – but it is better to be more mindful.” At the most concrete level of the conference, we witnessed already an attempt to exceed the requirements of the law in the legal protection of vulnerable persons.

Participants found the conference both intellectually enlightening and pastorally useful. One attendee remarked that it was “enlightening” to recognize the strength of canon law when applied to minors, but its limitations when applied to vulnerable adults; he left with a sense that “there is more work to be done describing vulnerable persons.” Many more participants recognized that the sessions would support their ministry in the long term: some were motivated to clarify and render more concrete their parish handbooks; others gained a heightened awareness of who “vulnerable persons” might be, and how boundaries and power differentials might figure into the question. In both theory and practice, the event enlightened New England’s clergy and lay ministers and helped them improve their pastoral ministry.

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About the Seminary: Founded in 1884, New England’s oldest Major Seminary, Saint John’s Seminary serves Catholic communities across the New England region and beyond by educating and training men to be Catholic priests and by providing a graduate education in Catholic Theology to laity, deacons, and professed religious who serve the Church in a variety of different ministries.