Sep 15, 2002

Influential Priest-Canonist is Abuser of Member of Bishops Review Board

Online Edition

– Vol. VIII, No. 6: September 2002

Influential Priest-Canonist is Abuser of Member of Bishops Review Board

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

One of the most troubling stories from victims of clerical sex-abuse that the US bishops heard at their June meeting in Dallas was that of Michael Bland, a former priest in the Friar Servants of Mary, known as the Servites.

Bland told the bishops that in 1994, almost seven years after his ordination, he revealed to superiors that he had been sexually abused as a teenager by an older member of the same order, and that he had been called to Rome to discuss the case. The order’s authorities told him to reconcile with his abuser. When he refused, the authorities turned against him; whereupon he left the order and the priesthood.

"The priesthood lost me, but kept the perpetrator", Bland told the bishops, noting that the abuser, whom he did not name, had recently been promoted to full professor and vice-dean at a major Catholic university.

After his Dallas testimony, Bland, a psychologist who is now clinical-pastoral coordinator for victim assistance ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago, was appointed a member of the bishops’ national review board on clerical sexual abuse.

On August 6, the unnamed abuser was identified. The Washington Post revealed that John Huels, a Servite priest, influential liturgical canonist, professor of canon law and vice-dean of Saint Paul University in Ottawa, was Bland’s abuser.

Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post reported, "Yesterday, in a brief statement that made no mention of Bland, Saint Paul University in Ottawa announced that the Reverend John M. Huels has temporarily left his posts as a professor and vice-dean of canon law".

The Post said that Huels told the university rector, the Reverend Dale M. Schlitt, that he would be "on medical leave for the treatment of severe depression". ("Justice Delayed Brings Vindication, Not Peace", link 6/24/05

Catholic News Service reported that Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais, who is also chancellor of Saint Paul University, issued a statement August 5, stating that Huels has "announced his intention to leave the Servite order and seek laicization". Archbishop Gervais said, "It is my hope that his voluntary actions today will bring peace to all involved".

Bland had told authorities of his abuse by Huels in 1994 when Huels, a professor of canon law at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, was made provincial of the Chicago province of the Servite order. Huels stepped down as provincial, but retained his CTU faculty position. Two years later he was hired to teach at Saint Paul’s.

Archbishop Gervais told CNS that when Father Huels was hired six years ago as vice-dean of the canon law department the archbishop had not been informed of "any inappropriate behavior in his [Father Huels’s] past". The CNS story said that Huels has now admitted his guilt to the archbishop, who said that in June this year "I was made aware of a situation" involving Huels.

However, according to the Washington Post, Bland wrote to the dean of canon law in March, "expressing my concern and wonderment why my perpetrator was teaching at Saint Paul University", and questioning Huels’s promotion to vice-dean.

Bland told the Post that the week before the announcement of Huels’s "temporary" medical leave, Bland had received two phone calls from Archbishop Gervais, who invited Bland to fly to Canada to discuss the matter, though the archbishop explained that he was not bound by the US bishops’ policies. Bland said he told the archbishop that he saw no point in meeting until action was taken against Huels.

More abusers at Saint Paul’s

Huels’s case is not the first instance of a sexually abusive priest being hired at Saint Paul’s, Canadian LifeSite News reported on August 12 ("Action on Sexually Abusive Priests Comes Only After Media Exposure – Ottawa Catholic University Attracts Sexual Abusing Professors", August 12, 2002,

A known repeat pederast, Father Barry Glendinning, who had abused children in the 1970s and had been sent for "counseling", was hired by Saint Paul’s in the late 1980s, and despite the fact that his abusive past was being reported in the media at the time. Glendinning was not only hired to teach at Saint Paul’s, but soon became chairman of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Liturgy Commission. In 1999, some of Glendinning’s victims launched civil suits against him. A report by an Ottawa Catholic researcher detailing the abuse was published in January 2000, shortly after which Glendinning withdrew from his post at Saint Paul’s.

In May, the Toronto Sun reported that Saint Paul University had scheduled Father George C. Berthold, 67, to teach a course during a summer program. The Sun reported that Berthold decided to drop out after his past was exposed by the Boston Globe. The Globe reported that in November 1995 Berthold was fired from his position as dean of Saint John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts, for making improper advances toward a 19-year-old freshman seminarian. (Cardinal Law is under fire in part because he recommended Berthold despite his sexual abuse of the seminarian.)

On April 3, 2002, Father Michael Guimon, OSM, provincial of the Servites in Chicago, had written a letter concerning a different priestly abuser, stating, "In 1995, the Province formalized its position on this issue by establishing and promulgating formal policies and procedures on sexual misconduct with minors".

Huels undeterred…

After his ouster as Chicago provincial of the Servite order in 1994, Huels spent time in South Africa before taking the appointment at Saint Paul University. Yet the renowned canonist remained an active supporter of homosexual "rights" — and still used his title. On May 16, 1999, "Equality Illinois" published a list of activists who supported a Gay Rights Bill who had "signed their names stating their belief in justice and equal human rights for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity".

His name appears on this list as "Father John Huels, OSM, Prior Provincial, Servite Friars".

(The Gay Rights list no longer appears to be accessible on the "Equality Illinois" web site.)

Power undiminished…

John Huels has been greatly influential in shaping the opinions of liturgists on a wide range of issues — altar girls, posture and gestures of the people during Mass, so-called "inclusive" language in liturgical translations, placement of tabernacles in churches, roles of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, and even the kind of bread to be used for Mass.

He has published several books and numerous articles in prominent liturgical publications, has lectured throughout the United States at workshops and symposia, and has been on the faculty of liturgical institutes. He is currently listed on the Notre Dame Masters of Arts in theology summer-school faculty. Before going to Saint Paul University in 1996, where he taught seminarians, Huels remained on the faculty at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union where he had taught since 1982.

Huels received his degree in canon law from Catholic University of America. His dissertation director and mentor was Monsignor Frederick McManus, emeritus professor of canon law at CUA.

Monsignor McManus exerted profound and pervasive influence over nearly every aspect of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council — from church architecture to music and rubrics and translation.

Huels, like his mentor, believes that the interpretation of liturgical law should determine liturgical practices, and he advocates "legislation by interpretation" of the Church’s liturgical rules.

A key principle is that if he finds a particular law unpersuasive, the canonist’s objective is to find justifications for interpreting the law in such a way as to legitimize a change in practice, which may conflict with the actual law. This is the "make a path by walking on it" principle of changing or reversing laws one finds objectionable.

If confronted with an unwanted law, Huels repeatedly advises, create a new "custom":

"[A] standard principle in the science of canon law today is that church laws must be interpreted in light of the teachings of Vatican II. For the interpretation of liturgical law, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has paramount importance. A major emphasis of the constitution is that the liturgical reforms are to encourage and enhance the full, conscious and active participation of the people in all the liturgical rites" (in "Standing During the Eucharistic Prayer", More Disputed Questions in the Liturgy, 1996. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, p 22f).

"Any interpretation of a liturgical law that ignores the theology behind the law is not a good interpretation. It is not faithful to the law’s true meaning and spirit.", he writes in "Liturgy, Inclusive Language, and Canon Law", an essay in Living No Longer for Ourselves — Liturgy and Justice in the Nineties (ed. Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ and Mark R. Francis, CSV, 1991. Liturgical Press, pp 138-152) .

But then, "The exact and literal fulfillment of the rubrics and other laws ought not to be the only consideration of the liturgical minister, but rather, how the law can be understood and enfleshed in ways that enhance the worship experience of the assembly. This is the purpose of liturgical law; this is its theological foundation….

"Fidelity to the spirit of the law and the interpretation of the letter of the law in light of its spirit is the ‘new way of thinking’ about canon law that Pope Paul VI challenged the Church to assume" (Ibid. p 149; emphasis added).

A few quotations of Huels’s opinions and reasoning may help illustrate his approach to "interpreting" the law to achieve a desired change.

On sexism and foot-washing

"A literal application of a law that is perceived to be sexist is likely to be opposed or ignored, even if the law’s observance is demanded by the bishop. Moreover, the equality of all the baptized is a principle enshrined in the fundamental, constitutional law of the church (canon 208). This principle is based on the divine law, to which merely ecclesiastical (human) law must defer. When a human law is perceived within a society as violating the principle of the equality of the sexes, it is not a good law in that context; it no longer is in the service of the church there. It is then necessary to correct the law in that local church by an appropriate remedy, such as dispensation or the development of a contrary custom (canons 85, 24)".

("Washing Women’s Feet" More Disputed Questions in the Liturgy, p 27.)

On improvising use of feminist ("inclusive") language

What does it mean to say that no one on his own initiative may "add, remove, or change anything" in the liturgical books?

In "Liturgy, Inclusive Language, and Canon Law", Huels argues that "minor adaptations in the texts … to make them more inclusive are by no means against the intent and spirit of canon 846, §1. On the contrary, because the purpose of the law is to promote the good of the community, the use of inclusive language best upholds the spirit of the law" (p 150 – emphasis added).

Canon law, says Huels, "obliges all the faithful to promote social justice [Canon 222, §2], and several other canons in the code are devoted to justice issues and the Church’s teaching on the dignity and equality of persons".

Therefore, he reasons, "On the basis of these laws and teachings, one could argue that the use of inclusive language in the liturgy is not only desirable, it is obligatory as well. To the extent that inclusive language is a matter of justice affecting the dignity and equality of Christians, all Catholics are bound to promote its use, since all are bound to promote social justice" (p 141 – emphasis added).

"In the dialectical context of the council", Huels writes, the reason for the restrictive statement against unauthorized liturgical changes "doubtless … was to reassure the conservative minority who did not want to change anything and who feared abuses…. The [restriction] thereby helped to bring about the consensus that ultimately resulted in the nearly unanimous favorable vote on the constitution as a whole".

But this is not needed today, Huels says, because "the most vociferous opponents of the liturgical reforms have now been discredited and their leaders [Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, et al] excommunicated" (pp 147-148).

"In other words", he explains, "the exact and literal fulfillment of the rubrics and other laws ought not to be the only consideration of the liturgical minister but, rather, how the law can be understood and enfleshed in ways that enhance the worship experience of the assembly" (p 149).

"Canon Law states that no one on personal initiative may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgical books when celebrating the sacraments. This may, at first sight, appear to prohibit individuals from using inclusive language when the official texts do not. However, when the historical and theological contexts of the canon are uncovered, it becomes clear that the spirit of the law, if not its letter, actually favors the use of inclusive language" (p 151).

On the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani

At a workshop to explain the new Missal and the Institutio Generalis, or rules for celebration of Mass, sponsored by the diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, last August, Huels suggested that it doesn’t really apply to the US Church:

"The Roman Missal is primarily written with the Church of Rome and Mass at Saint Peter’s in mind…. In Rome, especially at Saint Peter’s, the norm is that there are a large number of priests and deacons to celebrate each [Mass] and therefore fewer lay liturgical ministers are present. In comparison to Rome for most Catholic communities in the United States the norm is only one priest and a large number of lay ministers. With this in mind it is easy to see why the Instruction calls for the priest and or deacon to perform several functions that here in the United States the priest would perform along with various lay ministers".

(Quoted in "Meaning and Implementation of the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal Discussed", West Kentucky Catholic, September 2001.)

On Kneeling vs. Standing

"In English-speaking North America, the posture prescribed by the bishops’ conferences during the eucharistic prayer is kneeling from the end of the Sanctus through the Amen. However, in some parishes and in many religious communities and seminaries, the assembly stands throughout the eucharistic prayer. Is this an acceptable variation or an abuse of the law?…

"Because posture is a means of participation, what the optimal posture is for the assembly’s active participation during the eucharistic prayer needs to be asked. Ritually, standing is the posture that most befits active participation. That is why the presider and deacon stand throughout the prayer; they are clearly active participants. Kneeling is fitting for personal prayer and is associated with the veneration of the reserved sacrament. However, in the eucharistic prayer is not a time for personal adoration of the reserved sacrament but for participation in a communal action, in the church’s great prayer of praise and thanksgiving. This is not to say that there can be no participation by the people when they kneel but suggests rather that the posture of standing better signifies their baptismal dignity and better fosters a sense of their own active role in worship; they are not just passive spectators of an action going on at the altar.

"Enough has been said to conclude that standing is no abuse of the law; in fact, it serves better the value of active participation than does kneeling. Although the US bishops did not make the ‘ideal’ decision in 1969 on posture during the eucharistic prayer, they voted for what they perceived was realistically the best solution at the time. In doing so, they believed that it was desirable to avoid burdening the people with too many liturgical reforms all at once. Their reason is one that should always be considered in adapting the liturgy. The Christian people should not have liturgical changes suddenly and arbitrarily foisted upon them without catechesis at the whim of the pastor or director of liturgy. For example, to force the assembly to stand by removing all the kneelers in church, as has occurred in more than one parish, meets resistance and hostility, not with understanding and acceptance. The latter can only be achieved by thorough catechesis"…

("Standing During the Eucharistic Prayer", More Disputed Questions in the Liturgy, p 23)

On the Gesture of Reverence

The requirement (in IGMR §160) that the conference establish gestures of reverence before people receive Communion need not be enforced, according to Huels:

"Until now, the law recommended a sign of reverence but did not explicitly give the conference of bishops the authority to establish it. What is new in IGMR §160 is the requirement that the conference of bishops establish the appropriate gesture of reverence that is to be recommended to the faithful who communicate standing.

"This action need not be taken immediately. Indeed, the most acceptable reverence to be recommended will probably emerge only after wide consultation….

"In an informal Internet survey that I took among diocesan worship officers and liturgists in the English-speaking world there was general agreement that crossing and holding both hands reverently when receiving in the hand, and folding them when receiving on the tongue, are appropriate signs of reverence. There was unanimity among liturgists in their opposition to genuflection. Not only does it disrupt the communion procession and interrupt the flow of distribution, it presents physical challenges to the elderly and persons with certain disabilities. It is also against the universal law" (original emphasis).

Apparently, for those who genuflect before receiving Communion, a different rule applies, and this "disruptive practice" should be stopped at once:

"They have not been invited to do this but allegedly are following the advice of example given over a television network. Some pastors are already reporting difficulties…. Some official intervention appears to be necessary lest this disruptive practice spread more widely".

("The Revised Institutio Generalis of the Roman Missal and the Conference of Bishops", FDLC Newsletter, December 2000-January 2001, p 3 – original emphasis.)

Lasting Consequences – and two sets of rules

Although Huels has now retired in disgrace, his legacy will likely continue to affect every Catholic worshipper in the English-speaking world for many years.

Given the fact that Huels has violated the moral law for years, it is perhaps not surprising that much of his career has been devoted to rationalizing violations of Church law for the purpose of desacralizing the liturgy. This has been a preoccupation of other liturgists whose sexual misconduct has lately been revealed.

The belief that the "spirit" of the law may be interpreted and "enfleshed" so broadly that the actual law becomes meaningless has become a rigid orthodoxy for some professional liturgists.

And there are two sets of rules: permissive for those who want to overturn traditional norms; severe for those who maintain them.

We have seen the counterpart of this in secular law, where the most essential human right was obliterated by an ominous "penumbra" in the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion, while the same "penumbra" protects and defends the rights of libertines.

The history of this era has dramatically shown that an "interpretation" by a few has lasting consequences for the many.

[NB: Capitalization in all the above quotations is original.]



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.