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A bit of fair treatment, please, in handling accusations against priests

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 14, 2014

TheMediaReport.com is offering 5 practical suggestions for journalists covering the sex-abuse story as it relates to the Catholic Church. TheMediaReport is a site that doggedly defends the Church against accusations, and in some cases, I think, ends up defending the indefensible. But in this case, the advice is excellent, and any fair-minded journalist should follow it.

To sum up quickly (and to encourage readers to see the full version, anyone following the sex-abuse story should be aware of abuse in other institutions, apart from the Church; should recognize that some of the main players in this drama are motivated by hostility to Catholicism; should notice that a few lawyers have made huge profits on lawsuits; should acknowledge the enormous opportunities for fraud; and should realize that the Church has taken great strides in responding to abuse complaints.

The fundamental point here is that while the Church has richly deserved criticism because of sexual abuse, it’s important to keep things in context. Yes, demand that Church leaders address the issue, holding predatory priests accountable for their actions and their enablers accountable for covering up the crimes. But don’t throw away the rules of evidence, the considerations of fairness, and the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty.

In Minnesota this week, a judge demanded that the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese turn over a full list of all priests accused of abuse, whether or not the accusations were credible. So if some malicious and/or misguided man lodged a complaint against a priest he didn’t like, and that complaint was readily identified as spurious, the priest’s name would still go down on the list demanded by the court. Unwarranted suspicions would be directed at an innocent man.

And something else would happen, too. If some other malicious and/or misguided man saw that poor priest’s name on the list, he might realize that he had been presented with an opportunity for a lucrative lawsuit. One non-credible complaint could be dismissed, but two complaints would put the priest firmly in the category of “suspect,” and archdiocesan officials would be under pressure to reach a settlement rather than incur the expenses and risks of a trial.

(Regrettably, the St. Paul archdiocese is not raising a furor about this inequitable judicial order. “The archdiocese looks forward to working with the court and all affected parties…” reads the formal statement. The pattern is all too familiar; after fighting tooth and nail against disclosure for years, Church officials swing to the other extreme and quietly surrender whatever the court wants—claiming to be happy to do so.)

Meanwhile about 700 miles from St. Paul, in North Platte, Nebraska, two employees of a government housing authority have been fired for disclosing that an applicant for housing had been accused of molesting a child. Since 75% of the tenants are single parents with children—who would be prime targets for a predator—the former employees thought that they should give some warning about a potential neighbor with an active warrant for sexual abuse. They were wrong. By disclosing that information they violated a federal law, and so they lost their jobs.

So it’s a federal violation to disclose that an applicant for housing might be a menace to his neighbors. Yet in Minnesota it is now a requirement, as interpreted by one judge, that the archdiocese must report even false accusations, and name the priests who were falsely accused. If you don’t see a clear inequity here, then…

Let me ask two hypothetical questions:

  1. What would happen if someone went to the chancery in St. Paul, carrying a copy of the archdiocesan directory, and lodged sex-abuse complaints against every single priest in the archdiocese? Everyone would know that the complaints were false, and the list would be completely meaningless. Would the archdiocese still be required to turn over all the names to the court?
  2. How would authorities in Nebraska have handled the situation if the applicant for housing in North Platte had been a laicized Catholic priest?

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  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 14, 2014 8:02 PM ET USA

    Excellent points! Unfortunately, many Bishops are way too eager to "cooperate with the authorities" to notice the blatantly double standards.

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