May 20, 2005

Msgr. Easton celebrates 25 years as archdiocese’s vicar judicial

By Sean Gallagher

He’s one of the most powerful priests in the archdiocese, but Msgr. Frederick Easton is hardly a household name.

When the Church was in the throes of the sexual abuse crisis a few years ago and dioceses across the country were looking for a roadmap on how to best follow Church law in dealing with the matter, a Canon Law Society of America ( CLSA ) task force headed by Msgr. Easton delivered a clear 47-page guide outlining how the Church should go about protecting the rights of the abuse victims as well as the accused.

Msgr. Easton also played a key role in gathering evidence about a reported miracle that may lead to the canonization of Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Additionally, he is a key participant in the beginning stages of the promotion of the cause for beatification of Bishop Simon Bruté, the first bishop of Vincennes.

On May 5, Msgr. Easton celebrated his 25th anniversary as vicar judicial or officialis of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. As the chief canon law judge for the archdiocese, Msgr. Easton is the head of the Metropolitan Tribunal, which primarily judges the cases of the faithful who are seeking a declaration of nullity for a previous marriage.

Nearly all of his 39 years as a priest have been spent in the day-to-day workings of the tribunal, and during that time he has become one of the nation’s leading experts on canon law.

“Msgr. Easton is a wise canonist and is respected as such nationally by his peers,” said Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein. “He is, in fact, extraordinarily knowledgeable of the Church’s Code of Canon Law, and he is eminently pastoral and just in its application.”

Although he and those who have ministered with him in the tribunal have spoken of his knowledge of and love for canon law Msgr. Easton said his longevity in his field is unusual.

“Some people have been five years and out,” he said. “I felt that you get better with age if you’re interested.”

The CLSA acknowledged the expertise that Msgr. Easton has gained over the years by electing him as vice president/president-elect in 1997 and presenting him in 2003 with the Role of Law Award, the highest honor the organization gives to its members.

Msgr. Easton received this award the year after being involved with aiding dioceses across the country respond effectively to the sexual abuse crisis.

Franciscan Father Arthur Espelage, executive coordinator for the CLSA , based in Alexandria, Virg., praised Msgr. Easton for the positive example he has set during such a troubling time in the life of the Church.

“In a time in the Church where there’s a lot of crisis…,” Father Arthur said, “he is really a shining example of leadership and stability. And it’s comforting to have a man of his character as an associate.”

Although he has gained a national reputation in the field of canon law, Msgr. Easton has also played a key role closer to home.

On June 29, 2002, he participated in the priestly ordination of his nephew, Father Justin Martin, who is associate pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis.

Born 10 years after his uncle was ordained, Father Martin describes the presence of Msgr. Easton in his life as one of the major factors that opened him to consider a priestly vocation.

“He’s always been there for me,” Father Martin said. “When I was confirmed, he was there. When I had first Communion, he was there.”

And he was there at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when his nephew was ordained a deacon and at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis when he was ordained a priest, helping to place his vestments on him during both liturgies. He described witnessing the ordination as an affirmation of his own life as a priest.

“That has to be what it was,” Msgr. Easton said. “It’s one of those things that I just couldn’t put my finger on it, but it certainly was fantastic. It was mind-blowing.”

But such fulfilling and solemn liturgies last for only a short time. And soon after witnessing his nephew become a priest, he was back to work across the street in the basement of the Catholic Center, shepherding marriage cases along their way and leading the tribunal’s staff in their ministry which Msgr. Easton describes as “academic” and “cerebral.”

Although the subject of his staff’s work might be seen as dry, Msgr. Easton has nonetheless inspired similar longevity in Fathers Robert Gilday, Paul Shikany and James Bonke.

Father Gilday has been the vice vicar judicial for 25 years, while serving as the pastor of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis for the past two years. He never earned a graduate degree in canon law and said that Msgr. Easton was responsible for much of his formation for ministry in canon law.

Father Bonke has worked in the tribunal since 1990, with two years away to study canon law in Rome.

He praised Msgr. Easton’s knowledge of canon law and described him as “among the top canonists of the United States, certainly in the top 10 that I know.”

But despite Msgr. Easton’s renowned knowledge of an admittedly academic ministry, Father Bonke was quick to emphasize the vicar judicial’s pastoral approach.

“Canonists in general have an image that they’re so caught up in the details of the law that they lose a sense of pastoral ministry,” he said. “And that is certainly not the case with Msgr. Easton. He approaches the law as very much of a ministry in the Church, a ministry of justice in the Church. And he sees it as an aid, a tool in the pastoral life of the Church. That has perhaps been the biggest thing with Msgr. Easton that I’ve noticed.”

Looking back over his nearly four decades of service in the tribunal and his leadership there over the past 25 years, Msgr. Easton said that the law of the Church is at the heart of who he is.

“Retrospectively, in just knowing how I’ve been all these years,” he said, “I often say that I had another vocation, a vocation to priesthood, but also a vocation to canon law.” †


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