Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Be careful what you ask for

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 11, 2011

For nearly 20 years now—since long before the mainstream media noticed the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church—I have been calling for exposure of the corruption, and an end to the cover-up. But there are limits to the value of public disclosure, and now the most recognizable victims'-rights group in the US has marched resolutely past those limits.

SNAP (the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests) has become increasingly predictable. Again and again—in diocese after diocese, case after case—SNAP spokesmen demand that Church leaders publish a full list of the priests who have been accused of sexual abuse. That's a bad idea: not only for the Church, but even for the cause that SNAP professes to represent, the safety of children. 

[A word of clarification here: As a matter of policy, SNAP asks for the names of priests who have been credibly accused. The distinction between all accusations and all credible accusations is often missed in media reports. But even a credible accusation may be unfounded. And particularly given the nature of these cases--in which there often is no solid evidence apart from the testimony of the accuser and the accused--there is a huge gap between even a credible accusation and a reasonable assurance of guilt.] 

An accusation, let's keep in mind, is not the same as a conviction. When a priest is first accused of misconduct, the diocesan officials hearing the charge may have no evidence to confirm or refute the charge. If the priest is guilty, he should certainly be disciplined. But if he is innocent, he deserves support from his bishop. Publishing the names of all priests who have been accused would, inevitably, mean exposing innocent priests to public defamation. Even if these innocent priests were eventually cleared of charges, the damage to their reputations would be irreparable; they would live the rest of their lives under suspicion, with parishioners always wondering whether they had dodged a legitimate charge.

Already, good Catholic pastors worry that their ministry could be derailed, their vocation destroyed, on the basis of a single wild accusation. If priests felt that the scales of justice had been tilted even further against them, morale among the clergy would plummet, young men would shy away from the seminaries, and the shortage of priests would be aggravated. How would diocesan officials respond to such a crisis? There would be enormous pressure to shore up morale among the clergy, by quietly reassuring priests that they would not be subject to false accusations. And how could chancery officials provide such reassurance? By ignoring complaints, or dismissing them out of hand whenever possible, so that they did not rise to the "official" level required for public disclosure. In other words, a policy requiring full disclosure of all complaints would tempt diocesan officials to resume the cover-up once again!

The old reliable principle works well here: the accused should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. If the accusation is credible, by all means remove the priest from ministry until the matter can be resolved. But do not betray the innocent.

A word here about false accusations. It would be hopelessly naive to think that among the thousands of cases brought against Catholic priests, every one is valid. Troubled people sometimes make false accusations, for reasons involving their own complicated psychological needs. When highly publicized lawsuits offer the prospect of thousands of dollars in legal damages, the temptation to lodge a false complaint is heightened.

Now suppose a Catholic diocese, its patience exhausted by fraudulent complaints, called upon SNAP to publish a list of all the sex-abuse plaintiffs whose charges have been found baseless. Would SNAP agree to that sort of public disclosure? I certainly hope not. Yes, the frauds should be exposed. But such a listing would also harm innocent victims whose complaints really did have merit, and discourage others from coming forward with the truth.

Which is, you see, exactly why the same approach should not be applied to accused priests.

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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  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 12, 2011 12:52 PM ET USA

    After another bad week- admittedly of allegations, not convictions- the Church faces more fallout. It is hard to imagine on a practical level how restraint can be exercised in the current political pressure cooker. The Church is held to a higher standard because She is the standard. The pervasiveness of this behavior at various levels is astonishing. Unfortunately, the collateral damage to so many souls as these stories continue to unfold is devastating. "Flectamus Genua!"

  • Posted by: Eagle - Mar. 12, 2011 9:20 AM ET USA

    An excellent article. The problem which you describe, though, goes even deeper. Priests here can't give hugs to kids, and are cautioned against "touching" them even during play. The Holy See said that "spiritual paternity" was at the heart of priesthood, and that "paternity" was one of the reasons for barring homosexual ordinations. What father (or grandfather) doesn't give his kids/grandkids hugs or play with them? What I see is that, to protect against abuse, we destroy paternity and humanity.