Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part II

(Part I of this article was posted on May 2, 2013, and can be read here.)

In the first part of our discussion of false sexual-abuse accusations leveled against Catholic priests, we saw that canon law provides—and has always provided—a set procedure that is to be followed whenever any cleric is accused of a crime.  The bishop or religious superior must conduct an investigation, to determine whether the allegations have any merit; and if they obviously don’t, the case should end right there.  In the meantime, he now is also required immediately to inform the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) about what is going on, and to follow their directives.

As we all know, in far too many cases in years past, priests were accused of sexual abuse by genuine victims—and these crimes were simply swept under the rug, by church officials who eschewed their God-given responsibility to take appropriate action.  This is an established, ugly fact that is not up for debate!  It’s true that there’s often more than one legitimate way for an ecclesiastical superior to deal with these problems; but doing nothing, preferring to ignore the issue in the hope that it will simply go away, never has been or will be an option, ever.  Note that this is the reason why bishops and religious superiors are now obliged to contact the CDF in Rome—the Vatican wants to make sure that such horrific crimes are no longer ignored at the local level.  One occasionally encounters diocesan officials who complain about Rome’s “interference” in their affairs; but the undeniable fact is, Rome wouldn’t have found it necessary to interfere at all, if local church officials had been doing their jobs properly in the first place!

Having said all that, however, the Church’s manner of handling of abuse cases in many parts of the world today has gone from one extreme to the other.  All too often, when an accusation is made against a priest these days, his superiors are so anxious to show the world—which usually translates as a mass media that is unapologetically hostile to the Catholic Church in general—that they are not “soft” on sexual abuse.  There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with making it clear to the public at large that the Church does not tolerate this heinous evil!  But problems can quickly arise when these superiors are so eager to please the media that they swiftly move to punish the accused priest, even when evidence is insufficient (or lacking altogether) that the priest has actually done something wrong.  Penalizing an innocent person, ignoring his own rights and human dignity merely in order to make a few journalists happy, hardly constitutes justice.

And yet this is exactly what has happened frequently in the past couple of decades.  While it is certainly not limited to any one country, it’s undeniable that the bulk of these cases are in the United States, a fact which leads us to the next issue.  Unlike courts in so many other nations, the U.S. legal system is well known for handing out massive monetary settlements in civil suits.  Bishops/religious superiors understandably want to avoid having to pay millions of dollars in damages to victims of clerical abuse; and when that concern is coupled with a fear of negative media attention, we’ve seen too often that both logic and justice can go right out the window, and innocent priests can be thrown right under the bus!

Examples abound, and although many of them cannot be directly identified here for reasons of privacy, it’s possible to outline the problems in general terms.  After very public scandals some years ago in a couple of US dioceses, where the crimes of genuine pedophile-priests had been ignored for years, chancery officials have now “remedied” their past failure to address the problem by determining that all priests are to be punished the moment an accusation is lodged against them—without even determining whether the accusation might be true or not.  As a priest-canonist working in one such diocese told me, shaking his head, “Now, if one of our priests is accused of abuse, he is immediately suspended!”  As was discussed in greater detail in “Father Pavone’s ‘Suspension’: Priests for Life, Part II,” suspension is a censure (cf. c. 1333), and censures are only imposed as penalties for commission of a crime.  You don’t need to be a lawyer to appreciate that being accused, and being guilty, are not the same thing.  The end-result of this bizarre practice is that a priest is guilty until proven innocent, which of course stands justice completely on its head.

Not surprisingly, it’s also a blatant violation of canon law: as was just mentioned, superiors are legally required to conduct an investigation into any charge leveled against a priest under their authority, and are also to take care that nobody’s good name is damaged by conducting the investigation (c. 1717).  It shouldn’t matter if an accuser is granting interviews to the media left and right, and threatening loudly to sue the diocese/religious institute for millions—the bishop or religious superior is both morally and legally obliged to do his best to get to the truth, however uncomfortable it may turn out to be.  And if the evidence is insufficient (or non-existent) that the accusation is true, what reasonable legal standard in the world would hold that the accused should be punished anyway?  A priest who is wrongly punished in this way is procedurally obliged to appeal his superior’s decision to Rome, and the case normally takes endless months, even years, to resolve, while the priest waits helplessly in a sort of canonical limbo.

Complicating the matter even further are the rivalries and petty resentments that sometimes exist between clerics of the same diocese or religious institute.  After all, the clergy suffer from the effects of original sin just as the rest of us do, so if a superior is confronted by an allegation (truthful or not) against one of his priests whom he heartily dislikes already, he may be predisposed to side with the accuser regardless of the facts—or even use the situation as an occasion for “payback” against the accused priest.  Tragically, this happens more often than most Catholics probably realize!  Pope Benedict himself was only too familiar with this sort of vicious backbiting among the clergy; in 2009 he cited publicly, in a case of intra-clerical rivalry within a different context, St. Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians: “But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15):

Whoever proclaims that God is Love “to the end” has to bear witness to love: in loving devotion to the suffering, in the rejection of hatred and enmity – this is the social dimension of the Christian faith, of which I spoke in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

Was anybody listening?  A canon lawyer can’t help but wonder, when faced with cases where a priest is unlawfully suspended by a superior who is (for example) his former seminary-rival….

But the injustices don’t end there.  In recent years, some superiors have actually publicized the contents of their secret archives, which in many cases contain information regarding past accusations—including those which had been determined to be entirely unfounded.  As was already discussed in Part I of this article, every diocese is required to have secret archives (c. 489.1), and it is here that documentation pertaining to criminal allegations—and their subsequent investigation—is to be kept.  And as canon 489.2 clearly states, the information in the archives is to be reviewed annually, and documents are to be purged after ten years or when a guilty party has died.  Note that these archives don’t merely contain information regarding truthful accusations against the clergy; documentation concerning allegations that turn out to be completely phony are kept here too.  As we saw in Part I, if an innocent priest is accused of wrongdoing, his superiors should (if possible) investigate the matter without even informing the accused of what is happening.  This logically means that in the thousands of secret archives around the world, there is information regarding false charges against innocent priests, information which those priests themselves don’t even know exists.  Imagine finding out through the media that (let’s say) 17 years ago, someone with a long history of mental problems lodged a complaint about you—a complaint which your superiors had established was clearly untrue—and that now you are suddenly being lumped by the media into the category of “pedophile-priests who were left unpunished.”  The reputations of wholly blameless priests have been destroyed overnight in this way—because their superiors released confidential documentation which should never have become public.

It is unfortunate that in the English language, the term “secret” seems to suggest that something is being hidden or covered up.  The Latin term archivum secretum is actually far more neutral, indicating merely a depository which is (a) kept separate, and (b) private and confidential.  The scandal-seeking media, ever on the lookout for an excuse to attack the Catholic Church, and uninterested in the real rationale for the existence of secret archives, has repeatedly pounced on the concept as “proof,” in and of itself, that the Catholic Church is systematically covering up pedophilia on a wide scale.  (By this logic, the same media should likewise criticize the military establishments in their respective countries, for keeping both the locations of missiles and the passwords needed to launch them “secret” as well.  After all, this too constitutes a “cover-up”!)  Both law and common sense dictate that if a Catholic superior is faced with an onslaught of ignorant and/or anti-Catholic media and lawyers, demanding that he reveal the contents of these oh-so-mysterious secret archives, he should explain that he is obliged to maintain the confidentiality of these records.  Some diocesan officials have done exactly that, while others have sadly buckled under the pressure, destroying the reputations of countless priests in the process.  (Note that in some cases, dioceses have unwillingly released the contents of their secret archives only after being ordered to do so by the civil courts.  Legally speaking, this is an entirely different situation.)

It comes as no surprise that untold numbers of unscrupulous persons, sensing weakness on the part of Catholic authorities, have sought to exploit the sex-abuse scandal for their own financial benefit.  As one civil lawyer frankly admitted, “The incentive to lie for money is real.”  God alone knows the number of phony “victims,” who have invented allegations out of thin air, in order to seek millions of dollars in damages; even when they are exposed, few are actually punished for committing fraud and destroying the lives of those whom they have falsely accused.

Even less surprising is the fact that this unscrupulosity extends to lawyers, many of whom have made staggering amounts of money by suing dioceses for vast sums, of which they then receive a percentage.  Cases have been documented of lawyers actually “trolling” for victims, to make allegations in return for a share in the profits.  Perhaps the most blatant examples of this can be found in Los Angeles, where scores of lawsuits have been filed in recent years, many of which have been determined to be entirely false!  Beyond a doubt, the so-called “Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests,” or SNAP, is at the forefront in this regard.  Civil courts have begun to realize that this organization, which purportedly seeks “justice” for victims of clerical abuse, is more interested in attacking the Catholic Church per se, and benefiting financially in the process.  The Catholic League has done a masterful job of exposing this organization for what it is.  Why is this not plastered over the front pages of our newspapers?

Fraudsters appear to have established early on that if you claim falsely that a priest abused you many decades ago, it’s all the harder for him to defend himself against your accusations.  The easiest targets for such predators are of course priests who have already died—since obviously they are unable to defend themselves.  A civil lawyer, hired by an institute of religious priests to represent them in a case involving one of their deceased members, bemoaned to me the unwillingness of the priest’s superiors to fight the charges.  “There are huge holes in the accuser’s story!” he exclaimed in vexation, “but [the superiors] don’t want to fight it, they just want to make a settlement!”  The end result is that priests who dedicated their entire lives to the Church, and whose reputations had previously been spotless, are now, after their deaths, besmirched as criminals despite a lack of evidence—and their hierarchical superiors won’t even make the effort required to defend their posthumous good name.

If a worldwide contest were to be held to find an innocent priest who has been treated the most unjustly, it would be difficult to judge.  But a top-contender for this dubious distinction would undoubtedly be Gordon MacRae, an American priest of the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire.  In 1993 he was charged with repeated sexual assault of a fr gordon macraeteenaged boy, who later admitted that “he had a hit list and that Fr. MacRae was at the very top.”  Despite a complete lack of evidence of his guilt—and much other evidence showing that he was being framed—officials in the Manchester Diocese signed a deal with state authorities that enabled the diocese to avoid liability, by “admitting” that there was sufficient evidence that Fr. MacRae was guilty.  It appears that there had indeed been child-molesting priests in this diocese, whose activities had been left unchecked by diocesan officials in the past; when this fact became public, the false charges against Fr. MacRae were simply added to the list, and in their eagerness to settle, the diocese was unwilling to distinguish between false accusations and true ones.

Abandoned by the very ecclesiastical superiors who should have been standing up in his defense, Fr. MacRae was next railroaded by the state legal system, which at the last minute surreptitiously added names of other young boys to the documents he was pressured to sign.  Father could have been out of prison in two years if he’d agreed to a plea-bargain, but he refused to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit.  He was eventually sentenced to over 33 years in prison, where he remains to this day.

In 2005, Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Dorothy Rabinowitz, who is not a Catholic, began investigating the case of Fr. Gordon MacRae.  Her probe resulted in a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal which showed definitively that the priest is entirely innocent of the charges which had been fabricated against him.  It appears clear that the Catholic Diocese of Manchester was more interested in avoiding lawsuits—which in this case would obviously have been entirely frivolous!—than in defending one of their own priests.

By sheer coincidence, Rabinowitz just published an update on Fr. MacRae’s case in the Wall Street Journal this past week.  It’s accompanied by a video interview of Rabinowitz, in which she does not hesitate to decry the “witch-hunt” for alleged pedophile-priests where none existed, in order to reap huge civil payouts (one of which went to Fr. MacRae’s accuser).

There’s no denying that yes, Catholic bishops around the world were outrageously derelict in their duty to protect children from real clerical abuse in years gone by.  Today, accusations normally are no longer ignored by church officials.  That does not mean, however, that the problem is now being handled justly.  Bishops and religious superiors who penalize their clergy before their guilt has been established shouldn’t be surprised when the number of vocations in their diocese/institute plummets.  Young men who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood are not blind to the unjust treatment of priests.  Think about it: would you be willing to promise obedience, and to dedicate your entire life to priestly ministry, under a superior who is allowing blameless priests to be destroyed before your eyes?

The fact is, when a man becomes a priest, he surrenders his autonomy in perpetuity.  You might say he agrees to live like a minor child for the rest of his life, because he will always be under the authority of, and thus dependent on, his bishop or religious superior.  As was discussed in “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I,” it’s the superior who decides where a priest will live and what work he will do, and how much he’ll be paid for it, and how long he’ll be there before moving on to a new assignment.  That’s why it’s so critical, when a priest is falsely accused of anything, for his superiors to try their best to defend him.  To a great extent, a priest is helpless to defend himself!

In short, an often difficult balance has to be struck by church authorities, between weeding out genuine child-abusers among the clergy, and defending those who are falsely acused of such abuse.  Leaning too far in either direction can (and does!) do tremendous harm to innocent people.  Which is more heinous: ignoring evidence that one of your priests has been molesting children, and allowing him to continue to harm them; or allowing a priest under your authority to be completely destroyed by accusations of crimes which he did not commit?  It may be one of those questions that only God Himself can answer.

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