Chancellor’s experience, canon law study on handling clergy sexual abuse gain national attention

| January 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

Susan Mulheron, chancellor for Canonial Affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Paul Minneapolis, is writing her dissertation for her doctorate on a canonical response to the sexual abuse of minors. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Susan Mulheron, chancellor for Canonical Affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, is gaining national attention with her experience and study of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in light of canon law.

She was the keynote speaker last September at a meeting of experts in Naples, Florida, discussing the abuse crisis, brought together by the Catholic-based International Center on Law, Life, Faith and Family. Mulheron addressed the cultural, institutional and systematic roots of the crisis and ways canon law can be used to address it — or misused to exacerbate it.

Mulheron spoke in October at the national convention in Phoenix of the Canon Law Society of America, where she serves on the board, on canonical considerations in the Church’s response to scandals, particularly the abuse crisis.

And she will be in Washington, D.C., Feb. 1-2, along with Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment, as part of a panel discussion on emerging best practices in response to the crisis. That gathering is being organized by the Leadership Roundtable, a Washington-based organization of lay and clergy dedicated to good management and leadership development in the Church.

Mulheron credits Archbishop Bernard Hebda, O’Malley, Joe Kueppers, chancellor for Civil Affairs, and others with working as a team to address the abuse crisis in the archdiocese in effective and insightful ways. That includes placing the rights of abuse victims front and center, improving accountability and disclosure when dealing with concerns about clergy, and ensuring a safe environment for children and adults, Mulheron said.

The archdiocese’s 12-member Ministerial Review Board, which includes a victim of clergy sexual abuse and people with a wide range of professional experience, has also drawn attention from other dioceses, Mulheron said.

One innovation is having the board deal with misconduct of all kinds, such as financial misdeeds, as well as sexual abuse, she said. Some dioceses have expressed concern about broadening the scope of their review boards, but an advantage, particularly for smaller dioceses, could be keeping board members well-informed, active and involved in a variety of issues, Mulheron said.

People are hearing good things about the archdiocese’s actions since the local scandal broke five years ago, Mulheron said.

A hard beginning

Mulheron, 36, holds a licentiate degree in canon law and is writing her dissertation for her doctorate on a canonical response to the sexual abuse of minors. It came out of her own experience, when she was appointed interim chancellor in May 2013 from her position since August 2011 on the archdiocese’s marriage tribunal. She became chancellor that September, just as the scandal was erupting in the archdiocese.

She replaced Jennifer Haselberger, who had resigned as chancellor in April 2013.

“At the time, I did not know what was coming,” Mulheron said. “You could tell there was unrest going on and some challenges … It really didn’t blow up until the end of September 2013, and then in October it lit up.” (St. Paul Police Department launched an investigation in October 2013).

But O’Malley and other leaders came on board in 2014, and Archbishop Hebda was appointed apostolic administrator of the diocese in June 2015, then archbishop in March 2016. An effective team was formed, she said.

“I know the job I have now and the circumstances I work in now are very different (than what Haselberger faced),” Mulheron said. “I am grateful to see the changes that have been made. It’s unfortunate that it took what happened to get these changes to come about. Overall though, I feel really good about where we’re at as an archdiocese. I am grateful I do not face the same challenges and obstacles that she talks about that she faced in her job.”

Doctoral dissertation

Mulheron said the subject of her dissertation stems in part from frustration with Church law after the state Legislature in May 2013 lifted for three years the statute of limitations on historic claims of sexual abuse of a minor, and people came forward with complaints.

“Allegations were wide-ranging, and in trying to devise a canonical response this came up a number of times, ‘how do we deal with this?’” she said. “It (the dissertation) came out of that experience, in looking for something a little more applicable, or practical.”

The dissertation is looking at universal canon law on the subject, which is broad and gives wide discretion to bishops, as well as particular responses and essential norms in bishop conferences around the world, such as the U.S. bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and ways canon law might be improved at all levels in the area of sexual abuse of minors, Mulheron said.

One suggestion might be placing into Church law more emphasis on the rights of sexual abuse victims, she said.

On a wider note, clergy sexual abuse of adults and seminarians also must be addressed in the Church, and penalties prepared that would be proportional to the alleged misconduct, she said. Bishops must also be held accountable for any misconduct and a process devised to investigate complaints against them, Mulheron said.

The archdiocese has developed protocols for accusations of clergy sexual misconduct with adults in its code of conduct, and if a bishop in the archdiocese is accused of misconduct, the archdiocese’s Corporate Board is notified, immediately involving lay leadership, Mulheron said. But the universal Church has not adequately addressed these issues, she said.

“In my opinion, the Church could really benefit from some development in the law,” she said.

A Feb. 21-24 meeting Pope Francis will hold at the Vatican with all the presidents of the bishops conferences around the world is expected to address Church law and some of the difficult issues around clergy sexual abuse.

Convert to Catholicism

Mulheron’s involvement with the Church didn’t really begin until college at the Newman Center at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. She grew up in Boise, Idaho, without a faith tradition, and in high school was active at a Protestant church.

While in high school, Mulheron said, she began studying Scripture and asking questions, and she found a vibrant Catholic community at Syracuse University. She grew closer to the Catholic faith as she studied its history, traditions and doctrines. The sacraments became important (“the Eucharist was the hook,” she said) and she began the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program. She entered full communion with the Church at the 2001 Easter Vigil.

For her junior year, Mulheron transferred to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Catholic Studies, which included a stint studying in Rome. She met her husband, Jeremiah, in the program, and they married shortly after graduating.

Interested in law, she thought about entering law school, but was discouraged by a priest who counseled her to wait and discern her calling. She learned more about canon law, earned her master’s degree in theology at St. Thomas, and then her licentiate in canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Now, she is studying for her doctorate through the University of Santa Croce in Rome. She is comfortable in Italian, reads and does research in Latin, Spanish and French.

Loves the work

And she loves her work. It goes well beyond clergy misconduct issues to include drawing up documents and answering questions about baptisms, pastoral accommodations for a wedding, relegating a church to secular use in the event of a sale and other issues, often working with Kueppers as together they meet canon and civil law requirements attached to many duties, and helping Archbishop Hebda in his daily tasks.

“I do enjoy my job,” Mulheron said. “I work closely with the archbishop. Often on big decisions that he makes, he looks for recommendations, and he often looks to me for recommendations. Sometimes it’s both me and Joe (Kueppers); he needs advice from a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer … It’s often very challenging. I like to joke that nothing gets to my desk unless it’s a really hard question.”

When not at work, she and her husband enjoy the faith community at their parish, St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake. Her husband sings in the choir, and Mulheron enjoys the liturgies and not having direct responsibility for parish happenings.

“The community is friendly and welcoming, and so authentic about their faith,” she said. “I tend to really value my time at the parish as a way to be part of the Church in a way that is different than the rest of my week.”

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