Sex-Abuse Scandals, Transparency, and the Right to a Good Reputation

Q:  In a previous article, you stated that under canon law we all have the right to privacy and a good reputation.  I’m having a hard time reconciling these rights with the need for transparency in the Church regarding sexual abuse by the clergy.  Doesn’t preserving an abusive priest’s “good reputation” mean covering up his misdeeds?

…Everyone is outraged because bishops have long been sweeping sexual abuse under the rug, but if bishops are required to protect the good name of their priests, can’t they cover up and then argue that they were just following canon law? –Zach

A:  No, and no.

These days, there is a lot of entirely justified outrage about revelations that for years, too many bishops have been systematically covering up sexual abuse by clergy in their dioceses—as well as abuse committed by their fellow bishops.  Zach’s question underscores a problem of logic that is becoming increasingly common among those who are reacting to the situation with horror, regardless of whether they are Catholic or non-Catholic, clerical or lay: the distinction that must be made between
1) discreetly seeking to avoid public scandal, and
2) engaging in the kind of cover-up that we continue to discover has long been going on in many dioceses and religious institutes around the world.
These are two very different concepts, and their legal ramifications are different as well. Let’s first take a look at what is supposed to happen when clerical sexual abuse is discovered, and compare it to what has actually been happening in so many cases—and this distinction should become more clear.

First of all, if a bishop is told that one of the clergy of his diocese has sexually abused somebody (especially a child), it goes without saying that the bishop is supposed to do something.  There really shouldn’t be any need for the code to explain this; it’s a matter of ethics (moral theology), not to mention common sense!  But just in case there’s any uncertainty, the law spells it out.

Sexual misconduct by a cleric is not just morally wrong, it’s also illegal in many cases under canon law: canon 1395.2 says that a cleric who has offended against the sixth commandment—if the crime was committed by force or threats, or in public, or with a minor under the age of 16—is punishable by a just penalty, which might include dismissal from the clerical state (see “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” for more on this).  When the canon tactfully references “the sixth commandment,” this term is being used generically and means “sex,” including homosexual acts as well.

In 1993, the American Bishops requested (and obtained) from the Vatican a derogation from this law, which raised the age-limit and thus made it even stricter: the canon applied to sexual offenses by clergy in the U.S. involving a minor under the age of 18.  This made the canon consistent with U.S. criminal law.  And the age cut-off of 16 years was changed to 18 for the entire Catholic Church in 2001, with the publication of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (discussed in more detail in “Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I.”)

So if a priest is accused of such a thing, what’s a bishop obliged to do?  Briefly, if an allegation is made against a priest, and it “has the appearance of truth,” the bishop is expected to conduct an investigation to determine whether it is in fact true or not (c. 1717.1).  At this point, since the bishop doesn’t know whether the priest involved is guilty or not, he is to do this in such a way so as not to endanger the good name of anyone (c. 1717.2).  Again, this should be common sense: everyone is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty—and if it turns out that a person is entirely innocent and an accusation against him is false, then why should an innocent man be held up for public scorn or ridicule?  That’s why ideally, the investigation is carried out so discreetly that even the accused priest doesn’t know about it.

Note, however, that while the bishop is required to take care to avoid damaging anyone’s reputation during the investigative process (to the extent that this is possible), this canon does not apply to the accuser.  If a victim of sexual abuse wants to go to the police, and seek to have the priest arrested for a committing a crime under civil law, there’s nothing in canon law to stop him/her from doing this.  To be fair, a bishop might perhaps request that the accuser wait until his own canonical investigation has been completed; and if the investigation shows that the accusations are true, a bishop could conceivably suggest to the victim that the priest will be punished so severely under canon law that this might constitute sufficient justice, without the accuser even going to the police.  But the bishop has no authority whatsoever to prevent the victim from talking to law-enforcement authorities in the civil sphere, because that is always the victim’s right under civil law.  What happens in the secular arena is outside of the bishop’s purview—which is as it should be.

Over the years, it has definitely happened many times that a bishop established that allegations of sexual abuse by a cleric under his authority were truthful, and the bishop correctly acted immediately to
1) punish the cleric, and send him for psychiatric evaluation/treatment if appropriate;
2) make sure that the cleric was not left in a ministerial position where he could potentially commit the same crime again; and
3) apologize to the victim and take care to help him/her in whatever way might be suitable.
If the priest’s sexual misconduct constituted a crime under civil law, but the victim freely chose not to report the priest to the police, then that’s how the story ended.

Ordinary Catholics would probably be surprised at how common this sort of scenario has been—because they naturally never hear anything about it.  But note that this does not amount to a “cover-up” of wrongdoing!  A cleric is discovered to have committed a canonical crime; his bishop punishes him, helps the victim, and makes sure the cleric can’t do it again…and the victim is satisfied.  Under normal circumstances, we would call this “justice.”

Don’t forget that priests can be found to have engaged in certain types of sexual misconduct, without any crime having been committed under civil law.  Imagine, for instance, a priest-professor at a Catholic university who gets his 25-year-old grad student pregnant, or one who engages in homosexual sex with another adult male, or a priest who is discovered to have a closet-full of pornographic magazines which are entirely legal in the country where he resides.  In such situations, the priest’s bishop or other superior obviously needs to take swift action internally, as these actions constitute grave moral evils—but there is no reason for anybody to “go to the police,” because there’s nothing for the police to do.

Bottom line: if the Church handles a sex-abuse allegation correctly, in accord with canonical procedure, it doesn’t necessarily have to become public knowledge.  (True, in some countries there are civil laws which further complicate the equation, requiring anyone with knowledge of child sex-abuse to report it to civil authorities; but that is a separate issue which is relatively new, and does not apply in every country.)  The fact is, there are Catholic clergy out there who at some point in their past, committed some serious sexual crime under canon law…and it was dealt with.  Yet their reputations remain intact, and they may even continue to minister as priests today—but under strict parameters established by the bishop, designed to ensure that they are unable to get themselves into the same sort of trouble again.  For example, they might have subsequently been assigned to some type of ministry where there are no children in sight, or where they won’t ever potentially find themselves alone with an attractive young lady (or young man).  Other clergy ministering at the same location have most likely been informed of the priest’s past problem, and are tasked with discreetly keeping an eye on this erstwhile offender, who in turn may perhaps be required to tell them where he is at all times, keep a curfew, etc.

This is how it worked—when it worked.  But as we all know by now, there have been way too many cases where canonical procedure was not followed at all, both ethics and pastoral care were tossed out the window, and a sexual abuser among the clergy was simply allowed to continue his abuse with total impunity…while his victims were ignored (or even demeaned and bullied into silence by the priest’s bishop).  That’s the reason why the whole issue of “transparency” is even being raised.  If these crimes had routinely been addressed by all Catholic bishops in an appropriate way in the past, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.

There’s no denying that the failure to deal with a sex-abuse allegation in the Church is a serious issue—far from it!  But let’s identify the problem correctly, so as to be sure to apply the correct solution.  The problem is not that accused offender-priests were not “outed” publicly; the problem is that proven offenders were not removed from the ministerial positions where they engaged in the sexual misconduct, and punished!  Thus publicizing their crimes (or alleged crimes) is not, in itself, the solution to the problem.

With the help of the non-Catholic—and usually anti-Catholic—mainstream media, people these days are trying to reason about this issue more with their hearts than with their heads.  Yes, if there are sexually abusive priests out there engaged in ministry, who were accused repeatedly in the past but no action was taken, then something needs to be done about it, right now.  If victims choose to talk to the police, and to talk to the press, that’s totally up to them.  But how on earth does it solve the problem if the bishop runs to the press himself, and reads off a list of names of priests from his diocese who have been accused (rightly or wrongly!) of having committed sexual abuse?

Anybody can accuse a priest of anything.  That’s why an accusation, in and of itself, means nothing if there is no reason to conclude that it may be true.  The world is unfortunately filled with mentally ill persons seeking attention, with con-artists (and their lawyers!) looking for a lucrative civil settlement, and with vindictive former parishioners seeking to “get” a priest whom they hate for some reason—and it’s ridiculously easy for such people to make up a completely bogus allegation.  If we’re immediately going to accept every accusation as the Gospel truth, then we’re in deep trouble, because justice instantly becomes completely meaningless.

This is why, as already discussed above, there’s supposed to be an investigation, before accepting an accusation at face value.  And this is why a bishop trumpeting the names of priests accused of a crime, without ever having been proven guilty of it, is blatantly violating a priest’s good name.  It’s hard to see how this could possibly be considered to constitute “transparency.”

Here’s an unfortunate example of what should not happen.  A diocese voluntarily released to the press a list of clergy accused of sexual misconduct, dating all the way back to the 1940’s—regardless of whether the accusations had been proven to be true or not.  Apparently this is being done in an attempt to show the world that the diocesan bishop is tough on abusers.  In reality, he’s being unjust to his clergy, who in at least some cases were/are probably completely innocent of the alleged wrongdoing mentioned.  Some of the allegations were evidently never investigated at all, so there’s no way to know whether they are totally spurious or not.  And since some of the priests have passed away, they can’t even defend themselves!  How is this “just”?

Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591) is well known as a Doctor of the Church and one of its greatest mystics—but very few Catholics probably know that he was falsely accused of sexual misconduct himself.  Born in Castile, Spain, he entered the Carmelite order and was ordained a priest; and in 1581, he travelled to the city of Granada to found a new Carmelite monastery there.

Soon after his arrival, a woman carrying a 12-month-old baby approached him in the street.  She proclaimed loudly that the child was his, and demanded that he provide for the baby’s financial upkeep.  A crowd quickly gathered around them.

Being a saint, Father John calmly asked how long the child’s mother had lived in Granada, and was told she had been there her whole life, and had never left.  He replied that he himself had arrived in Granada less than a year ago, and had never been anywhere near the city before in his whole life (a fact that was easy for him to prove).  The crowd realized that the woman was lying in order to extort money, and hooted at her in contempt.  And that was the end of her accusation.

Some things never change!  This was a classic case of an obviously baseless accusation of sexual misconduct against a holy priest who was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.  But now imagine what might have happened if Saint John of the Cross lived today in a diocese where the bishop is anxious to show the world that he is being “transparent”: the bishop could place Father John’s name on a list of “clergy accused of sexual misconduct in the diocese,” and he would thus have his name sullied publicly by one of his hierarchical superiors.  Once a man’s good reputation is lost, it’s incredibly hard to get it back.

So to sum up, the Church should be investigating allegations, and punishing the guilty—but not the innocent.  We Catholics should be able to rest assured that the hierarchy is doing its best to do just that. Since we now know that in so many cases they haven’t, it’s quite understandable that we are all frustrated, scandalized, and angry!  But let’s all make sure that the solution actually fits the problem.  Destroying the reputations of all clergy who’ve ever been accused of any misconduct, without first determining that they’re truly guilty, is not the answer.

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