Canonical Rights of Clerics with Regard To
Psychological Testing and Treatment
It has become the conventional wisdom that, when a priest is accused of sexual misconduct or has exhibited erratic behavior that has rendered his ministry ineffective, the appropriate response is to request that the priest undergo a psychological evaluation and, if indicated, treatment. This response is canonically legitimate if, and only if, the priest freely consents. However, if the priest refuses to undergo evaluation or treatment or to release the records of such an evaluation to the diocesan bishop and his advisors, the diocese finds itself in an awkward situation.
Some dioceses have ordered priests to undergo evaluation or treatment or to release records of such evaluation or treatment under the obligation of clerical obedience and threat of penal sanctions. When priests have made recourse to the Congregation for the Clergy against these orders or the sanctions pursuant to them, the Congregation has upheld the priests. Citing a little publicized and, to date, unpublished, 1976 instruction of the Vatican Secretary of State as authority, the Congregation has judged it a violation of the right to privacy (c.220) to require a priest to undergo psychological testing or treatment or to release the records of such evaluation without the priest’s free and informed consent. Thus, the Congregation has reversed decisions to remove priests from offices or ministries solely on the basis of their refusal to submit to psychological evaluation or to release the records of such evaluation.
Nevertheless, the Congregation has not barred disciplinary actions against priests who refuse to submit to psychological examination or to authorize the release of psychological records, if these actions can be justified by evidence of the priests behavior that can be shown to have rendered his ministries at least ineffective. Thus, when a priest whose behavior has given rise to concern about the effectiveness of his ministry refuses to submit to a psychological evaluation or to release records of such evaluation to diocesan authorities, officials should document his erratic behavior as thoroughly as possible and formulate arguments why his behavior has rendered his ministry ineffective. This documentation should be used as the basis for removing the priest from office (including the office of pastor) or ministry.
A psychological evaluation can then be required to assure the diocesan bishop that the priest is “endowed with those qualities which are required for” the office or ministry to which he is to be reassigned (c.149 *1).
Before removing a priest from an office or ministry because of documented behavior that has rendered his ministry ineffective, the diocesan bishop must observe the minimal due process requirements mentioned in cc.50-51 and, if the priest is a pastor, the procedure provided in cc. 1740-1747.