Loss & Gain
The First Amendment protects Erie Bishop Donald Trautman's denunciation of three putative whistleblowers, Judge William Cunningham ruled Tuesday. Sally Beres, Ann Caro, and Helen Rusnak had claimed that Trautman slandered them by characterizing them as liars.
The background is wearyingly familiar. Father Bob was into naughty pix. Beres claims she lost her secretary's job because she reported the fact to the Diocese. Now-retired Bishop Murphy, whom Beres says she told about Father Bob, has no memory of the meeting. When Beres and her comrades went public to claim a cover-up, the current bishop trashed the allegation as "outrageous." The Erie Times-News reports:
Cunningham ruled only on the issue at hand -- whether the bishops defamed the women. "In this case, it is not the role of the court to determine whether the Diocese of Erie appropriately handled any alleged improprieties with any priest; or to hold the bishops accountable for any alleged failure to act," Cunningham wrote.
We can imagine that Trautman and Murphy were not the only prelates to heave a sigh of relief at the outcome of the case: they are declared free to characterize their accusers as slanderers -- without having to prove the falsehood of the accusation against them. Of course, this is a double-edged ruling. Innocent victims of malicious accusations have more freedom to counter-attack, while villains have greater latitude in the execution of their villainy.
So Trautman and Murphy won. Beres, Caro, and Rusnak lost. But the disputed facts at the root of the scandal have yet to be sorted out, and the "importunate widows" of the future will be unlikely to repeat the blunder of seeking justice in the manner naively suggested by charity, prudence, and mercy -- namely, by approaching their bishop discreetly and in good faith. As Stephen Brady has shown, if you want action, you go to the Action News Team first. When the bishops see the contents of Father's hard drive splashed on News at Nine, then the problem will take on reality for them.
The slide into cynicism is potentially reversible. If it were important to them, bishops and religious superiors could investigate incipient scandals more quickly and more thoroughly than any detective or prosecutor or journalist. They could act, and act decisively, long before gossip had a chance to travel to the chancery water-coolers. Such alacrity would result in sudden vacancies in the ranks of bishops, priests, and seminary faculty. There'd be no more mega-meetings in hotel conference centers, no more public relations-driven awareness programs, no more transparently bogus happy-talk for the Klieg lights.
If it were important to them.
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