Rhode Island’s Catholic bishop has responded to controversy over a series of remarks from a priest in his diocese, which began with the Eucharist and pro-choice politicians, and seemed eventually to diminish the gravity of child sexual abuse.

“In the context of the present public discussion, it is important to affirm that both the sexual abuse of minors and abortion are horrific, immoral actions that have very serious, harmful consequences,” Bishop Thomas Tobin said in a Feb. 13 statement.

“It is never acceptable to underestimate the harm caused by sexual abuse of minors,” Tobin added.

The discussion to which Tobin referred began when a Rhode Island priest, Fr. Richard Bucci, announced Jan. 26 that state lawmakers who voted in favor of a bill to expand abortion access in the state would not be permitted to receive the Eucharist at his parish.

The 66 legislators who voted in favor of Rhode Island’s Reproductive Privacy Act of 2019  should not approach Holy Communion, and would not be permitted to act as witnesses to marriage, baptismal or confirmation sponsors, or lectors at liturgies in his parish, Bucci said in a note he mailed to the lawmakers, and distributed at his parish, West Warwick’s Sacred Heart Church.

Bucci’s remarks suggested that proponents of abortion are prohibited from the Eucharist because of abortion’s unique gravity, and he has said that pro-choice legislators have incurred the penalty of excommunication.

The priest told local radio host Gene Valenti Feb. 7 that Catholic legislators who support same-sex marriage can be admitted to the Eucharist, while those who support abortion can not.

“There is not an innocent life at risk there. The Church has excommunicated people procuring, providing, guiding to abortion because there is an innocent life at stake, and so that is the reason that the excommunication has been in law since the beginning of Catholicism.”

The Church does say that pro-abortion politicians can be prohibited from the Eucharist, though Bucci’s argument is not consistent with canonical norms.

Canon law establishes that only Catholics who directly procure or perform abortions are subject to the canonical penalty of excommunication— doctors, and those who freely choose to undergo or directly facilitate particular abortions.

The Church says that pro-abortion politicians may be prohibited by their bishops or pastors from the Eucharist not because they are excommunicated, but because their political advocacy can constitute “obstinate perseverance in manifest grave sin.”

Catholics who advocate for other policies that can not be reconciled to Christian doctrine can also be forbidden from receiving the Eucharist, as can Catholics who publicly perdure in other consistent circumstances of grave sin, including ongoing and manifest sexual relationships, of any kind, outside of marriage. That prohibition, which would last until a person repented and amended his life,  does not constitute excommunication.

Bucci’s remarks sparked heated controversy when, in an effort to explain his position, he made a comparison between abortion and pedophilia.

“We are not talking about any other moral issue, where some may make it a comparison between pedophilia and abortion. Pedophilia doesn't kill anyone and this does,” Bucci told local reporters Feb 9, apparently attempting to emphasize the gravity of abortion, and addressing the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

According to some studies, people who experience sexual abuse as a child are three times more likely to commit suicide than national average. People who experience multiple acts of abuse are even more likely to take their own lives.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 called acts of child sexual abuse “a horrendous sin in the eyes of God." The Church says that a person who has committed any act of sexual abuse should not recieve the Eucharist without first sacramentally confessing the sin.

Tobin’s Feb. 13 statement did not address Bucci’s specific arguments. It did emphasize that “abortion destroys innocent unborn life; it exploits vulnerable women; it diminishes family life; and it corrodes the moral fabric of society. There are no circumstances, personal or political, that justify the termination of unborn children.”

“The Catholic Church has been very clear and consistent in condemning the evil of abortion, and we affirm that those who promote, support and approve abortion, including civic leaders, are responsible for having committed a grave evil in the sight of Almighty God,” the statement added.

At the same time, Tobin also emphasized that “Sexual abuse, wherever and whenever it occurs, causes long-lasting, sometimes permanent and devastating harm to the victims/survivors, their families and the entire community.”

“Allegations of sexual abuse must always be taken most seriously and every effort should be made to protect children and youth, to eliminate abuse, to prosecute abusers, and to offer assistance to those who have been harmed,” Tobin added.

Tobin did not indicate how the Diocese of Providence will respond directly to Bucci, and the diocese declined to respond to questions from CNA.

"In the current public discussion, I urge all parties to refrain from unhelpful, inflammatory rhetoric, and to reflect personally and prayerfully on the consequences of these grave matters. May we renew our efforts to protect life and promote the common good, especially for children and youth, and may God bless our commitment with wisdom, prudence, humility and charity," the bishop said.