Action Alert!

Priests need defense against false accusations

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 13, 2015

A Catholic priest who is falsely accused of sexual abuse can’t count on his bishop to defend him. That’s the unhappy conclusion one reaches after reading informative article in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review by David Shaneyfelt and Joseph Maher.

Twenty years ago, diocesan officials and their legal representatives would defend aggressively against sex-abuse claims: disclosing little, admitting nothing, and demanding silence if the victim accepted a financial settlement. The system was tilted against the accusers. But now the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme; the system tilts against the accused.

Shaneyfelt and Maher explain that even if bishops wanted to defend priests, in cases when they were convinced the accusations were fraudulent, they might not be free to do so. Often the legal strategy of the diocese is dictated by the insurance companies that would be obligated to pay off a claim.

For the insurer, the best possible outcome in a sex-abuse lawsuit is an inexpensive resolution. If the claim can be settled out of court, without the expense of a trial, that will often be the insurer’s preference.

But for the accused priest, an out-of-court settlement is a disaster. He has not been cleared; his reputation is shattered. If the diocese opts to settle the claim, people will assume, rightly or wrongly, that the priest must have done something wrong. Under the US bishops’ guidelines, a priest who has been credibly accused must be suspended from ministry. If the lawsuit is settled out of court, the bishop cannot reinstate that priest without facing public protests. Groups representing sex-abuse victims will angrily call for his laicization.

For the bishop, too, there are incentives to let the accused priest dangle in the wind. Like the insurer, the bishop wants to guard against huge expenses. The bishop has an obligation to preserve the resources of the diocese, and on that score a modest settlement is preferable to a calamitous jury award, and probably even preferable to a drawn-out trial that could clear the priest’s name.

Then too, the bishop often cannot be certain that the accused priest is innocent, and he does not want to be caught defending a predator. In today’s climate it would take unusual confidence and courage for a bishop to announce that he is prepared to fight—against not only plaintiffs’ lawyers, but also hostile reporters and publicists—to defend a priest’s reputation against a false charge.

Finally, if there is any shred of doubt as to the priest’s innocence, the bishop has an incentive to demonstrate that he was not aware of all the priest’s activities. If he was aware, and the priest was an abuser, then the bishop is complicit and the diocese is liable. So the lawyers representing the bishop—and remember, those lawyers may be paid by an insurance company with its own interests—will take pains to distance the bishop from the accused priest.

The lawyers want to limit the damage to the diocese and to the insurance company. The bishop wants to limit the damage to his own credibility and that of the Church. But who’s working to limit the damage to the accused priest? Nobody—nobody, that is, who is directly involved in handling the lawsuit.

Yes, the pendulum has swung. But for all the dramatic change in the approach to sex-abuse charges, there is one constant. In the unhappy past, bishops thought that they were defending the interests of the Church by keeping things quiet, preventing scandal. (How did that work out?) Now bishops think they are defending the interests of the Church by minimizing financial settlements and public-relations damage. But the real interests of the Church cannot be measured in dollars or in publicity. In the past, bishops too often ignored the rights of innocent children; now they too often ignore the rights of innocent priests. The real interests of the Church will not be served by a nervous, dispirited clergy, nor by fathers too timid to defend their sons.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Mar. 17, 2015 1:20 PM ET USA

    False accusations against priests can be easily countered by (1) abolishing the system of insurance that virtually guarantees a bumper pay day for the accuser, (2) requiring evidence and eye-witness testimony from the litigant. We cannot have this nonsense of making a complaint 30-50 years after the alleged abuse, when all other crimes demand evidence and testimony before a conviction can be brought against the accused.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Mar. 15, 2015 3:05 PM ET USA

    The main liability insurer in question, which has the policy of demanding that these things be settled out of court to avoid a trial regardless of the veracity of the accusation, is the National Catholic Risk Retention Group. This is the same insurer that requires dioceses to do the creepy, not particularly Catholic "Virtus" video training for anyone who works with children, as an insurance requirement.

  • Posted by: Ken_H - Mar. 13, 2015 9:10 PM ET USA

    It's even worse than that (referring to polish.pinecone's comment) - the priest (or anyone, in my experience) is okay until someone, rightly or wrongly, perhaps maliciously or with an agenda, makes an accusation. "Getting in trouble" is not actually required! Once the "system" turns against you there is very little that you can do to fight against unsubstantiated or false accusations.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Mar. 13, 2015 4:49 PM ET USA

    So gone are the days when bishops considered priests to be their sons, and now they're considered that only as long as they stay out of trouble. Once that happens, they're on their own.