Action Alert!

If a parish worker is under investigation: a pastor's dilemma

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 19, 2015

Today’s headline story leaves some key questions unanswered, and the problem outlined below might not apply. So let’s make this a purely hypothetical case:

Imagine that you are the pastor of a Catholic church. You are notified by local police that one of the teachers in your religious-education program is the target of an investigation for sexual abuse of children. What do you do?

  • You could do nothing, and leave the investigation in the hands of the police. But that would be irresponsible. Once you have credible evidence that this individual might be a threat to children, you are obligated by the Dallas Charter to take action. You would be morally—and perhaps legally—responsible if, as a result of your inaction, this person harmed one of the children in your parish.
  • You could suspend the accused teacher from religious-education program. That looks at first like a no-brainer; of course you would. But how would you go about it?
    • You could tell him, quite honestly, that he was suspended because he was being investigated by the police. But then, if the police hadn’t already informed him that he was a target, you could be accused of tipping him off, and thus undermining the investigation.
    • You could suspend him without any explanation. But then you’d be open to a different sort of accusations. The teacher’s friends would accuse you—quite rightly, from their perspective—of injustice.
  • And—whether or not you explained things to the suspect—what would you tell parishioners? If you explained the real reasons, you might be a) undermining the investigation and/or b) damaging the reputation of someone who could be found innocent. If you didn’t explain, you could be accused of covering up evidence of criminal activity, and failing to notify parents of harm that might already have been done to their children.

If you tell the world that a suspected pervert has been teaching CCD classes, you may do irreparable harm to public confidence in your parish. But if you don’t make that announcement, you may do irreparable harm…

You’re in a quandary, aren’t you? You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. But if it makes you feel any better, you can rely on one thing: Whatever you do, critics of Catholicism will cite your case as further evidence that the Church doesn’t care about young people.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Mar. 19, 2015 6:29 PM ET USA

    One thing that could certainly help: Don't operate in a vacuum. Get the bishop, his child protection person and the pastor together with the police and talk about the best way to remove the person without disrupting the investigation. If nothing else, they could perhaps come up with a plausible explanation that won't tip the person off. If you involve those impacted by what you do (in this case, the police), things will probably work out better.