By now, virtually everyone has heard of the Rolling Stone fiasco, with its explosive article, “A Rape on Campus,” having been unmasked as deeply flawed. Although the magazine featured a long story about campus sexual assault, the police found no evidence to substantiate the allegations of rape at the University of Virginia.
Perhaps fewer are familiar with the case of Alan Dershowitz, the well-known Harvard Law professor who tells his own frightening story of a false accusation. Dershowitz’s reputation for integrity, built over the course of a lifetime, was recently threatened by an uncorroborated allegation of sex with an underage woman. While that accusation has now been stricken from the record, Dershowitz notes that “you can’t unring a bell,” his sterling career and good name having been called into question.
Of course, there remains seared in American memory the tragedy of the Duke University lacrosse team, with three members of that squad having been accused of rape. Their story quickly became a national parable about race, class, and gender, with the athletes widely condemned in the court of public opinion prior to their exoneration. So hasty was their denunciation—on campus and off—that the attorney general of North Carolina subsequently condemned the “tragic rush” to accuse the students.
These high-profile episodes should make us think, once again, about Catholic priests who have been falsely accused of sexual abuse, and about the need for a just process in dealing with their cases.
One of the most significant problems facing priests today is that the standard for removing an accused priest from ministry is not “clear and convincing evidence,” or even a “preponderance of evidence,” but merely that an accusation is “credible”—the least reliable standard of assessment. David Pierre, in his eye-opening book,Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, has shown that a “credible” accusation might mean nothing more than, at a given time, the accuser and the priest lived in the same geographical area. Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out that accusations can be deemed “credible” simply because they are not entirely groundless.
Because of this low criterion—woefully insufficient in the minds of many—priests can be suspended from the ministry simply because abuse could have happened, even decades ago. Catholic bishops, deeply embarrassed by their past inaction; fearful of hostile reactions from the media and from advocacy groups; frightened that they themselves might be accused of criminal negligence; and given one-sided advice by diocesan lawyers and risk managers, have been willing to go along with this process, even if reluctantly. This has given rise to a serious problem within the Catholic Church.
Priests today are trapped in a vise between the Church’s proper desire to remedy past injustices and her equally proper desire to avoid the slightest appearance of tolerating abuse. But what the Rolling Stone fiasco and the Dershowitz case teach us—just as we were taught by the tragic episode of the Duke University athletes—is that the possibility of false accusations remains strong. Given the potential for sham and unproven charges, should one simply believe an alleged victim’s testimony without decisive evidence?
Not long ago at Mass, there was a reading from the prophet Daniel—the well-known story of Susanna, who was herself falsely accused. Daniel’s words leapt off the page of the lectionary: “Are you such fools, O children of Israel, to condemn a daughter of Israel without clear evidence?” That passage should have forced an examination of conscience by every bishop: Should one condemn a priest of Jesus Christ without clear evidence? Should one allow an unsupported allegation to ruin a man’s reputation and life?
Every American priest knows that he sits under a Damoclean sword. His priesthood could be sacrificed in an instant—the victim of the smallest “credible” accusation, one that possesses “a semblance of truth.” And this occurs, let it be noted, even when civil prosecutors have abjured any involvement in a case.
Because of this situation, the relationship between priests and bishops is now strained. Priests are respectful toward bishops, of course. But are they trusted spiritual fathers? Maybe. Just don’t be accused of abuse. Then, the relentless machinery will kick in. Rare is the shepherd who will wrestle wolves to protect his priest’s reputation.
And don’t think there is swift justice in these matters—a relatively brief administrative suspension until an investigation is completed and a determination made. That kind of action would be entirely understandable. But many cases drag on for long years without resolution. (Read Fr. William McCarthy’s The Conspiracy: An Innocent Priest for a harrowing, but by no means unusual, tale).
The problem is that, in many cases, no contrary evidence can come forward because an accusation is decades old. What convincing evidence could possibly be adduced to clear a man’s name? As Alan Dershowitz has stated, he was placed in the untenable position of trying to prove a negative. But how does one prove that a crime was not committed, particularly an old allegation obscured by time? Even if a charge could be true, is lifetime suspension a proportionate penalty for a mere possibility? Are not proportionate penalties the very warp and woof of intelligent and balanced systems of justice?
In the thirteen years since the Dallas Charter (Charter for the Protection of Young People) has been in effect, there has been a normalization process for bishops. They are attacked less frequently by the secular press. State legislators speak less often about uncapping statutes of limitations. Catholics are less angry at bishops for their former lack of action. And, in their defense, bishops—in their ordinary, quotidian activity—are harried regional managers beset with innumerable problems related to finances, personnel, and property. They are expected to be unfailingly judicious, kind, wise and generous. They are expected to preach the Gospel in an engaging and winsome manner. They are expected to keep a contentious, diverse flock united in faith and in mission. One cannot underestimate the stringent demands on bishops today. It’s not a life of perks; it’s a life of problems. Finding any process that works—even if imperfectly—helps to relieve a few of the daily headaches. And sexual abuse is a throbbing migraine.
But this episcopal peace comes at a heavy price. Most priests regard the present process as certainly unfair and as likely unjust. Among themselves, priests engage in gallows humor: “One phone call and my life is over.” “There’s a gun to my head and I’m not even in the mob.” But in their abiding loyalty to the Church, priests don’t complain publicly. They don’t unionize; they don’t call newspaper reporters; they don’t hold press conferences; they don’t seize microphones; they don’t make non-negotiable demands. Priests work long hours for low pay, often in difficult conditions, in fidelity to their commitment to God and men. They deserve much better than this with regard to their own dignity and reputations. Indeed, both natural justice and Catholic theology demand as much.
The questions flowing from our present morass are clear: What of the presumption of innocence? What of timely due process? Perhaps most importantly, what theological understanding of the priesthood is purveyed when, in a split-second, this sacred vocation is reduced to nothing more than an employer-employee contract?
Many who are now bishops in the United States were not involved in the composition of the Dallas Charter. It is time—past time—for a serious examination of that document, with its processes now guided by thoroughly Catholic theological and canonical principles.
Bishops will take a significant risk by doing this, as they’re well aware. Their PR handlers, house lawyers and risk managers will do everything possible to dissuade them. (See the startling essay, “Sacrificing Priests on the Altar of Insurance.”) The secular press and advocacy groups will undoubtedly accuse bishops of becoming “soft” on abuse, of “coddling” abusers, of “ignoring” victims. Shameless, media-hungry politicians will strut and fret about the Church going “backwards.”
But should bishops be held hostage by forces dividing them from their own priests? Or take counsel from those who have no knowledge whatsoever of principled Catholic theology? And why? Because the world will judge them badly? Can one imagine Athanasius or Ambrose, Chrysostom or Gregory, meeting the world with such an attitude?
Fr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.