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Priests can be victims of injustice, too

It is fatally easy to assume that priests accused of sex abuse are guilty until proven otherwise

By on Friday, 1 October 2010

Procedures to deal with allegations of child abuse were tightened up in 2001 following a report by the late Lord Nolan, pictured (Photo: PA)

Procedures to deal with allegations of child abuse were tightened up in 2001 following a report by the late Lord Nolan, pictured (Photo: PA)

This blog is about priests and paedophilia. Even to write these two words in the same sentence fills me with shame and sorrow: shame that a few priests – much fewer than in the popular imagination – have so woefully betrayed their office; sorrow for the victims whose lives have been indelibly marked by the crimes done to them.

As we know, the media likes to speak of “paedophile priests”, as if all priests must somehow have a shadow of guilt by association with the few. And this same media raised the subject many times before the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain, thus trying to create a miasma of disgust and disapproval even before the Pope reached these shores. The state visit itself was a resounding success and the Holy Father not only met some of the victims of abuse, as he has done in other countries, but raised the subject head-on himself on the plane bringing him here.

Against this general background, a particular news item on the Radio 4 Today programme, aired during the papal visit, has occasioned my reflections. X was interviewed. Now in her 60s she has only recently come forward about the occasion, aged 10, when she was raped by a priest in her bedroom with her parents downstairs at the time. A large sum of compensation money has been paid.

The whole interview filled me with disquiet, not, I hasten to emphasise, because I wish to challenge X’s memories, but because it raised for me the acute question: how can such allegations be proved beyond a shadow of doubt by the police, when the crime took place half a century ago and when the accused priest is probably dead, as are – presumably – the victim’s nearest relations? I do not know if in this case there was corroborative evidence from others; none was mentioned.

I repeat: I do not wish to throw suspicion on X’s memories, merely to raise the question. In English law people are innocent until proved guilty; in the matter of “paedophile priests” it is fatally easy to come to the opposite conclusion: that they are guilty until proved innocent. I understand that following the Nolan report on this subject its recommendations were modified so that accused priests are no longer in such a vulnerable position. But given the media’s appetite for ferreting out subjects of scandal, this area is still a minefield.

On a recent visit to Belgium I read a leaflet by a Jesuit priest, Fr Charles Delhez; reviewing the (proven) scandal of the Bishop of Bruges he appealed, as I do here, for justice: justice not only for the victims of sexual crimes, but also justice for accused priests – who may be innocent. We know of false memory syndrome, where unscrupulous and unregulated psychotherapists act upon vulnerable young people to unearth supposed memories of familial incest, causing trauma and breakdown in ordinary families. The same syndrome can operate within the clerical sphere. Add to it the temptation of receiving a large sum of money, the tricks of memory after the passage of time, the wish for revenge and the harbouring of a grudge and you have, as I indicated above, a minefield for the police to navigate.

Fr Delhez referred to the notorious affair of Outreau in France, where 13 people, including a priest, spent three years on remand before the accusations of children against them were found to be lies and fantasy and they were acquitted. I myself know an elderly English Jesuit priest accused in this way by a former pupil of the school he taught at, and who was also later acquitted of any wrongdoing. He suffered deeply in the meantime. Is it too much to ask the press, so self-righteous when it comes to the sins of others, to occasionally highlight cases of clerical miscarriage of justice?

  • Fr John

    It does not stop there! Unproven/false allegations are often recorded on Enhanced Criminal Record Checks
    in the so-called “soft-box” (Box 5) where Police Forces can add any comments they wish. Consequently
    many Professionals against whom such allegations have been made are finding themselves unemployable.
    Surely, this is against natural justice.

  • Jackie Parkes

    Well put Francis…

  • Karmenu of Malta

    I am a national of Catholic Malta, a tiny island in the Mediterranean where everybody thinks he knows everyone else. A few years ago, two persons, one of whom is a priest, were accused of child abuse.

    They were vilified in the media and on the internet; and I can assure you that 99% of the local population assumed that they were guilty.

    Their case slowly reached the Criminal Courts of Law; where, after a long procedure, a not-guilty verdict was issued. Wonder of wonders, athough I tried to go through as many newspapers as I could, I did not read news of their acquittal; and up to now, nowbody knows that they have been declared innocent by the criminal court.

    In the meantime their lives have been devastated by the whole process, thanks to a section of the media and to our 'civilised' way of life.

  • David_lorenz

    First – you do not have to prove criminal cases beyond a shadow of a doubt – it is beyond resonable doubt. Second, the Catholic Church's own publications indicate that less than 3% of allegations are false. In other words 97% are true. But of course, 3% false allegations does mean we have to be diligent and let the justice system do its job. Before opining, get the facts straight.

    In the case of Belgium, the problem is that most people rush to vindicate the cleric instead of allowing the justice system to run its course. You may have seen the opposite but I assure you, I have seen many a sexual abuse victim turned into the devil (revictimized) by the laity eager to support the cleric. Months later they find out the cleric was guilty. These same people issue no formal apology to the victim for the slurs they pronounced against them. This knife cuts both ways – let the justice system prevail before condeming either cleric or victim.

  • Michael

    Good article. You address several important issues. First, the media coverage of the abuse scandal has been atrocious. Some Catholic clergy apologists attribute it to anti-Catholic animus. I suspect in some cases that is true. However, I think the greater problem is journalistic laziness and incompetence. Regardless of whether one is inclined to believe all things horrible about the Catholic Church, we as consumers of media should demand a higher standard from journalists. Fact-checking, objectivity, competent investigation, consultation with various representatives of different perspectives and information, etc. should be a hallmark of any report, not just reports of clergy sexual abuse. Every day, I read reports on abuse matters in the media which are, in fact, a regurgitation of one group's agenda and often-false depiction of the facts. Often, I read reports that verbatim quote various self-proclaimed advocacy groups' statements on the issues, but not attributed as their perspective–it is reported as fact. Much of it is demonstrably false. An innocent public in these matters generally only knows what is reported to them. They do not realize that they are the manipulated recipients of slanted reporting. Regardless of what one is inclined to believe about the Catholic Church and clergy, each of us should demand a proper reporting of the facts. Second, you raise excellent points about alleged recovered memory. The truly scholarly studies of this alleged phenomenon reflect that the researchers have never been able to confirm any form of alleged repressed and recovered memory. However, they have been able–with alarming ease–to “implant” false memories and to recover such “memories” later. There is also research to the effect that trauma is something that is actually more acutely remembered, not repressed. The alleged repressed memory phenomenon has been advanced by plaintiffs' attorneys attempting to circumvent statutes of limitation. The debate should be about whether it is good policy to have a statute of limitations for such matters, not about whether we should find clever ways to do an end-run around limitations with junk science. Third, a related point that you properly address is the fact that many of these allegedly recovered memories emanate from the work of charlaton therapists with an agenda. That is a huge disservice to people who believe they have been abused, often wrongly, just to satisfy a need of the therapists or an agenda. Fourth, one of the poster's comments on the reportedly small number of false claims. That is a difficult thing to assess. I have been involved in clergy sexual abuse claims in one capacity or another for 15 years. The number of proved false claims is small. However, many claims that are not “proved” in the sense of a false claimant's confession are false, but not provably false. Also, many false claims are innocently believed by claimants who have been convinced by unscrupulous therapists that they were abused but repressed the memory. Also, many claims are not “false” in the sense of having been invented out of whole cloth. However, when one scratches the surface, the allegedly “abusive” misconduct cannot seriously be thought of as abuse. Often, it reflects internal discomfort of the claimant, not abuse. For example, I have seen a number of claims involving allegedly abusive hugging which, when further investigated through interviews with the claimant, involved no inappropriate touching. Some people report “grooming” behavior that did not actually culminate in offensive touching. There are many other examples. However, when the so-called victims advocates claim that no such allegation is ever made unless it is true, the dye is cast. It is simply disingenuous for anybody to suggest that there is only a 3% false claim rate–whether it is the Catholic Church or anybody else making such claims. Also, it is disingenuous to suggest that an accused cleric who is innocent can get a fair trial with due process when groups are claiming that he is guilty unless proved innocent.

  • Lnewington

    Continue to speak up David when the occasion permits, this is an excellent comment.

    What upsets me is where the relevant Bishops and Judicial Vicars know damn well these men have a serious psychological problem, many damaged themselves.

    Instead of releasing them from their vows placing out of harms way and seek treatment as a “father”, a further yoke is placed around their necks and by denial, holding them to ransom until finally they are caught, in many instances in later life and isolated, sending them to their graves as broken men.

    Legal counsel too play their part especially if Catholic allowing their client to swear under oath their innocence.

    Maybe they receive a special dispensation for protecting the priesthood and Church.

  • Gordon S

    Certainly some priests could be and no doubt have been wrongly accused and this is very sad. And yes we must always presume innocence until proven guilty. The poor man that was wrongly accused is a very terrible thing and I do empathise with him.

    Yet the huge number of sexual abuse by many priests around the world cries out for justice and 'change.'

    The scandals and sex abuse will continue until Rome abandons celibacy as a prerequisite for priesthood.

    For many men in the priesthood the stresses and urges become too much and they become perverted.

    For Rome to continue with business as usual and allow this to go on is nothing short of being a mortal sin.

    Also the catholic people also have a serious responsibility here to speak out. Mandatory celibacy is at the heart of what is wrong and it must be done away with-there is no other option for the Church…Gord

  • AndyFrankophile

    What an extraordinarily immoral concept that a man's counsel, barrister or solicitor, can prohibit a client from pleading not guilty. If the client denies his guilt surely it must be for the prosecution to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, and if not to acquit. Is Newington suggesting that a man who says he is guilty is told by his counsel to plead not guilty. If Newington has evidence of this then he must take it to the lawyers professional disciplinary body..

  • AndyFrankophile

    What an extraordinarily immoral concept that a man's counsel, barrister or solicitor, can prohibit a client from pleading not guilty. If the client denies his guilt surely it must be for the prosecution to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt, and if not to acquit. Is Newington suggesting that a man who says he is guilty is told by his counsel to plead not guilty. If Newington has evidence of this then he must take it to the lawyers professional disciplinary body..

  • Lnewington

    It gets worse than that my friend. We have an Independant Commissioner employed by the church to investigate complaints of abuse, tipping off the legal counsel representing the clergyman when police begin their investigations; and who can blame him?

    As far as solicitors are concerned, they would know already who are innocent and who are not but the letter of the law states; everyone is innocent until proven guilty; how many have maintained they're innocence under oath and fount not.

    Mental reservations, intimidations, dispensations and the confessional to protect the church, all in together result in a dastardly spiritual brew.

    There are no bars held in this dirty warfare, do a little worldwide research if it is a non occurrence in your part of the world.

  • Lnewington

    Tragic isn't it. A lot of them become disfunctional seeking out fantacies of Mary and apparitions with

    more than one woman becoming an object; Superiors and Bishops continuously having to get them out of scraps, oft'times with a husband in tow.

    I'm aware of at least one woman who actually left her children and husband of many years she became so caught up in the spiritual nonsense of one such as this was displaying, being denied the obvious psychological help he needed.

    I encouraged the gentle spiritually cuckolded husband to sue the Religious Order for alienation of affection; which he never did of course, “leaving it up to the Lord”.

  • Bob Brain

    I think your argument is undermined by the fact that the church has for a long time not been interested in finding out the 'truth' of these alleged cases of abuse, but rather closed ranks and protected the institution. The church has seen these cases at most as priests with moral abberrations rather than people who should be subject to criminal investigation which might have uncovered what really went on. And this is still continuing…. , despite the fact that the pope is showing some signs of taking responsibility. For example, in the abuse scandal in belgium, there was evidence that cardinal Danneels had been involvbed in a cover up. The police raided his home, which was immediately condemned by the vatican, as if the home of a cardinal is somehow . You can't have it both ways. If you or the church are really interested in finding out the truth, you should allow the police to do its work.

  • AndyFrankophile

    How would a solicitor know that his client was guilty unless the the accused

    had admitted to them their guilt? If the person concerned gave evidence in

    his own defence eg denying the allegation what benefit would it be to the

    solicitor to know that the person concerned had already confessed his guilt?

    Why would he call on the victim to give sworn evidence? Why would it be

    advantage to know that investigations had started? I am afraid you are in a

    bit of a muddle. If you are going to make allegations against a particular

    lawyer at least have the courage to make them under your name to the proper

    authority or otherwise it looks as though you are bearing false witness. If

    you are the victim of some priest then you should make the allegation to the

    police rather than spread meaningless bits and pieces that do not make sense

    in comment columns.


  • joanna61

    Could you please provide reliable citation of the alleged Catholic Church's publications on the matter of child abuse and the statistics. Thank you very much for your cooperation

  • Lnewington

    I am quite correct in what I have stated, like it or not, Solicitors representing the the church are fully aware of the statis quo when taking on cases of abuse. I have spoken to more than one over the years and asked why they don't advise them to plead guilty for their own sake. One response was they have the right to be represented and “diminished mentality” is the main arguement when sentence's are brought down when found guilty.

    In another case I encouraged a priest living in anxiety of an upcoming case to plead guilty and blame his bishop for not addressing it years ago when it first came to light instead of covering it up for decades, holding him to ransom spiritually and physically.

    Don't insult me with your diatribe either, do your research, it appears to me you would rather hinder these men from stepping out from under a cloud and breathe the fresh air of freedom to protect the “establishment”; and as far as me being abused no I haven't but I do know of many decent men who has given years of their life as a priest, treated with little consequence through the abuse of power.

    Where do you sit, somewhere on the fence so it seems unable to accept the crafty tools of trade used by the church.

    As suggested, dont sit there and expect to be spoon fed, do your own research you may just learn something; me thinks you already know what I'm talking about.

    I note you use the name AndyFrankophile I presume that is your name.

    Catholic Herald is well aware mine is as submitted.

  • Gordon S

    It certainly is tragic and at this stage of the game it is time for the Catholic people to speak out strongly against the ongoing consequence of mandatory celibacy.

    Without reforms this mass abuse will continue and I believe will even get worse. Just wait until the shame of it all comes out of the Vatican itself, Because it will! The power structure of Rome over the interior lives of priests must stop. Children alone are much to important to all of us for this sickness to continue.

    Come on Catholics speak out…. Gord

  • AndyFrankophile

    I am afraid I have never heard of the defence of diminished mentality. I

    imagine you are talking about the plea in mitigation after the person has

    been convicted. I would imagine it would be more easy to mitigate if the

    priest had pleaded guilty? I thought you were talking about lawyers

    representing the priest. I am not sure in what sort of cases lawyers

    representing the church are appearing. I do not see the relevance to your

    central allegation of dishonest lawyers, that you have advised a priest to

    plead guilty to an allegation of indecency. I assume you were acting as his

    lawyer. After his conviction you then argued that his bishop had

    contributed to the problem by not removing him from active ministry. I have

    no idea if that was the best advice but lets stick to the case you mentioned

    and which we are discussing (Disqus). I totally accept the wisdom of the

    laws of this country and most others that condemn indecent behaviour with

    minors. That has nothing to do with our discussion. I am still none the

    wiser as to what it is you are alleging some dishonest lawyer did and why

    you have not reported him for his dishonesty.


  • Lnewington

    Do you think for one moment that I haven't reported anyone. I have the strength of my conviction, no polly waffling for me. I still recomend you do your research and I'm sure your not quite as surprised that you make out to be.

    End of discussion.

  • James H

    Allowing priests to be married will not stop the problem. Churches with married clergy also have abuse cases. It's just not reported as loudly.

    If anyone has any objective evidence that celibacy causes sexual abuse, we'd appreciate some references?

  • Gordon S

    James, allowing priests to be married certainly will stop most of the problem. Yes abusers of children come from all walks of life-and yes even churches with married clergy have had some cases of sex abuse. However my friend, if you want to be objective, the large numbers of abusive Roman Catholic priests far out number any other.

    I had a priest friend of mine state awhile back that there is so much of this sex abuse amongst priests today that he feels all priests walk around like they have a star on their back. Many studies tell us that the stresses of celibacy and the banishment of women from the celibates life leads to contradictions and irrepressible urges often taken out on young boys.

    It was and still is an issue of power.While the celibate gives himself over to God by his sexual abstinence in effect he gives an abandonment of his will to his superior.

    James, ask an objective older priest to be honest with you on this and I'm certain he will agree with what I have said. It is a sin of not only commission on the part of the R.C. CHURCH but more than that a very serious sin of omission… Gord

  • Philip Gilligan

    You correctly say that “In English law people are innocent until proved guilty”. You may also have noted that for someone to be convicted in an English criminal court they must be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. and, in this context, should, surely, be as equally keen to question the failure of the Bishops to act on their supposed commitment to implement recommendation 78 of the Nolan Report as you are to sow doubt about the disclosures made by the victims sexual abuse perpetrated by a minority of priests.

    The Nolan committee recomended very clearly that “If a bishop, priest or deacon is convicted of a criminal offence against children and is sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment of 12 months or more, then it would normally be right to initiate the process of laicisation” and that “Failure to do so would need to be justified” (see and on 15 November 2001, the Bishops of England and Wales declared, “We now commit ourselves to implementing the Final report published on 17 September 2001″ (see ).

    However, 14 (64%) of the 22 priests convicted of offences against children who had served all or part of prison sentences of 12 months or more, since November 2001, had still not been laicised by September 2010 (see

    …. and, in the Diocese of Salford, the information has very recently emerged that the chair and the coordinator of the Salford Safeguarding Commission have admitted, during a meeting in Manchester on 10 September 2010, that, although Thomas Doherty (former parish priest of St Joseph's, Todmorden who was convicted of 5 offences of indecency with a boy under 16 in 1998) had written a letter requesting laicisation, Bishop Terence Brain of Salford has never sent this to the Vatican (see audio recording available online at

    You suggest that priests can be victims of injustice too. When the Bishops do not do what they have claimed that they will do, so can the laity. We were seriously misled by their supposed commitment in 2001.

  • Philomena Carolan

    That is right, I do agree that a lot of priests are treated injustly, as all of this makes it sound like every priest on the planet are abusing children and that is just NOT true, our priest is celibate and, never has abused a child in his life.

    He said he has not and I do beleive him, he is a truly honest man and, what ever he says he has not done or has done, I beleive him, he is celibate, he is a good man.

    Thank you

  • Davidmarsh1970

       In all cases the victims and their rights should be upheld.No religous group should protect people who commit serious crimes against children.The catholic church has protected animals which have been guilty of crimes against children.As for the judicial system in Britain,it can only at best be described as a criminal organisation,run by crminals in the guise of judges and solicitors,yours at thank you