Michael Novak is the author of twenty-five books, is much else besides and is almost always worth reading. The priestly scandal in question turned out to be one I have written about myself, but not for some time: the growing scandal of priests who are unjustly accused of child sex abuse, suspended by their diocese from all priestly functions and sent into a kind of ecclesiastical limbo, subsequently declared innocent by the civil authorities, and then totally ignored by the diocesan authorities who suspended them.
He writes of having dinner with a priest who greatly impressed him as a gifted and dedicated pastor.
He was unaware at first that this good man had been falsely accused of sexual molestation eight years before. He was effectively stripped of his priesthood (as Novak says, a scandal in itself) since in the Catholic Church today, it seems that the idea that a priest is innocent until proved guilty is a simple dead letter: what he finds, in effect, is that unless he can prove his innocence (an almost impossible task) he will be deemed guilty. This particular priest was in fact proved innocent. His accuser died of a cocaine overdose , but not before exonerating him by admitting the falsity of his accusation. His bishop, however, as Novak indignantly writes “has not moved – dared? – to reinstate this good man and return him to his proper standing in the priesthood, or even to give a public apology for his unjust treatment. Nor has the press that stirred up the atmosphere of high-tech lynchings revisited his case … to clear [him] of this horrible wrong.”
This story ought to be a one-off aberration: but I am coming to the conclusion that “this horrible wrong” is not only not a rare occurrence but is absolutely normal. There are, that is to say, hundreds and perhaps thousands of priests, world-wide, in this appalling situation.
I am not saying that the initial suspension shouldn’t take place. But a bishop who suspends a priest owes it to a man he has robbed of his vocation, even if in theory temporarily, to make sure that he really is guilty. The civil authorities have to do that: and in not a few cases the priest is found not guilty, or the DPP finds that there is no case to answer. The bishop ought then to reinstate him: but in many cases does not, even when it is clear that the initial accusation was fraudulent.
It is clear that there are many such false accusations, especially when there is the prospect of financial “compensation” from a vulnerable diocese. In his new book Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, David Pierre writes that “one can examine the number of Boston priests who were found to have committed abuse versus the number of those whose cases were studied and found to be false. In the end, one can demonstrate the sobering figure that one-third of accused priests in the Archdiocese of Boston were accused falsely. (I provide all of the supporting numbers in my book.)”
And as he also says, such priestly victims, nearly always, have been unable to return to the exercise of their priestly vocation: “the media is far too willing to adopt a tone of ‘guilty until proven innocent’—if not ‘guilty until proven guiltier’—when reporting cases of individuals coming forward to claim abuse by Catholic priests decades ago… [and] in many instances these accusations later turn out to be false. Yet the damage to the accused cleric’s reputation has already been done. His name remains plastered on the Internet as a ‘credibly accused molester,’ and enemies of the Church have no fear in using these bogus accusations to attack the Church.”
As I wrote here about a year ago, not for the first time, genuine and proven child sex abuse by priests has of course undoubtedly happened, and something had to be done about it (it should be added in parenthesis that the Church is practically the only organisation in society which actually has done anything about it, even though it it is clear that the minority of clergy involved in this appalling crime is numerically no greater than the percentage of abusers in the male population at large). So those very few children and teenagers actually in danger from Catholic priests obviously had to be protected. But as I also pointed out, “Catholic hierarchies, having erred in one direction in the past, had to make sure they were immune from such accusations in the future. So they set up procedures so rigorous that they have now erred in the other direction: in other words, without necessarily having any evidence of any kind, they now immediately suspend any priest accused, whether the accusations are believable or not. Innocent or guilty, this has often been enough to wreck his priestly ministry for ever: after all, everyone knows that there is no smoke without fire.”
And as I also pointed out, there has been a considerable number of false accusations, particularly when it has been possible to mount some kind of legal demand for “compensation”: where a priest is known to be wealthy or to be a member of a wealthy family this vile phenomenon has been particularly flagrant (I am personally acquainted with one such case: the priest in question was clearly innocent, but his bishop still covered his back by flinging him to the wolves).
Something of a fightback is now underway. As the National Catholic register reported recently in an article entitled “Priests in Limbo”
advocates for accused priests contend that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s “zero tolerance” policy has also spawned an unjust system that tramples on the rights of priests. In many cases, priests who have been found innocent remain barred from active ministry, while others who appeal their cases to the Vatican can be sidelined for years….
Father Michael Maginot, a canon lawyer who works with the clergy support group Justice for Priests, said he knew of no case where a priest that had been tried and cleared by a diocesan tribunal was then fully reinstated in active ministry.
There is, as I say, now something of a reaction under way (the internet is full of it), sometimes organised by a priest’s own people. I conclude with a splendid American website called “in support of Fr Ed”, which insists that “Our Fr. Ed is not the only priest with a stellar reputation to fall victim to an accusation of this nature and a questionable USCCB procedure that is bound to invite false allegations. The zero tolerance policy creates a situation in which priests are considered guilty until proven innocent and even subjects them to double jeopardy (both situations contrary to US law), making every priest and bishop a potential target for those motivated by revenge or greed or, in some cases, with distorted memories.”
Exactly so; and more and more ordinary Catholics are becoming aware of this shameful and unjust situation. Our bishops, judging by their behaviour, are still not aware of it. It is high time for this to change, and for bishops to undo the gross injustice many of them are still doing to hundreds of falsely accused priests, who want nothing more than to be allowed to minister to their people, from whose service they have been so brutally torn.