Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

‘Credibly accused’ is still not ‘Guilty’

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 08, 2023

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Massachusetts, has rediscovered the principle that a man is innocent until proven guilty—even if he is a priest.

The Worcester diocese this week released a report on clerical abuse, updating an earlier report from 2004. The new report, breaking with the pattern set by other Catholic dioceses, did not provide the names of all priests who have been “credibly accused.”

“There is no other precedent for the publishing of lists of the accused in society,” Bishop McManus said, explaining why the diocese did not name names. He added that the publication of such lists—which has become a routine matter in many US dioceses—“can be a cause for deep division among many members of our Church who see this as publicly branding as guilty those who never have been charged by law enforcement or had a chance to defend themselves in a court of law…”

Exactly. Lawyers and victims’ advocates have kept up a steady drumbeat of demands of full disclosure, and many dioceses, desperate to avoid further negative publicity, have obliged. So priests who insist on their innocence, and have never had the chance to rebut accusations, find their names on a list, their reputations permanently soiled. And innocent priests still working in parishes live with the uneasy realization that one false accusation could put their names on those lists as well. The willingness of so many bishops to set aside the innocent-until-guilty principle has been calamitous for clerical morale.

To be fair, a diocese does not categorize a priest as “credibly accused” unless there is some substantial evidence against him—enough to justify sending his case to Rome, for a full investigation by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. So it is not unreasonable to suspect that most of the “credibly accused” priests are in fact guilty of abuse. But a suspicion is not a conviction. And with thousands of complaints having been lodged against hundreds of priests, and potential claimants seeing the millions of dollars that have been awarded in lawsuits, it would be naïve to overlook the possibility of false claims.

In any case, again, a man has the right to defend himself against accusations. In many cases—roughly two-thirds of the cases in the Worcester diocese—the priest who was “credibly accused” is now deceased. He cannot defend his reputation, and he obviously poses no threat to anyone.

And what about those accused priests who are still alive? The Worcester diocesan report provides a breakdown. There were credible accusations against 54 priests, of whom 36 are now deceased. Of the remaining 18, nine have been laicized; the other nine have had their faculties removed, and been “required to live a life of prayer and penance.” In three of those cases, the Vatican may take further action.

So exactly none of the “credibly accused” priests in the Worcester diocese remains in active ministry today. But that reality did not stop SNAP (the Survivors Network of Abused by Priests) from issuing a statement that “parishioners can only look up from the pews to the altar and wonder if the mass celebrants may be a threat to their children.”

The Worcester report covers all accusations of abuse by priests, going back to the establishment of the diocese in 1950. That fact, too, drew SNAP’s ire, as the the Worcester Telegram reported:

In its statement, SNAP said that limiting the beginning of the report to the establishment of the diocese in 1950 creates an incomplete count that does not account for earlier allegations of cleric abuse in diocese territory.

True, no doubt. But how can any institution be expected to release records dating back from before the time when the institution itself came into being? And since any priests who abused children prior to 1950 are dead by now (or approaching 100 years of age if they are still alive), what possible good could come from the publication of their names?

For twenty years now, Catholic dioceses have been paying a heavy price for the misconduct of some priests and the failure of bishops to respond. As anyone who has followed my writing over the years will know, I have long deplored the handling of the scandal by the Catholic hierarchy. I do not believe that the scandal has been the result of media bias; the damage to bishops’ credibility has been self-inflicted. Nevertheless, at some point the bishops must defend the rights of their own priests, and acknowledge that even accused priests have the right to defend their good names.

Writing in The Pillar on the Worcester report and its critics, Ed Condon takes note of at least one bid to deny fundamental rights to priests even in the absence of an established “credible” accusation:

In New Orleans, a bankrtupcy judge ordered the archdiocese to cease paying stipends to clerics on the public “credibly accused” list in 2020, and last year extended the order to those whose accusations weren’t deemed “credible”—even if those priests hadn’t undergone any kind of canonical process at all.” (Emphasis added.)

So now, in an American court of law, a judge has determined that an accused man should be punished—that an accusation itself is sufficient evidence of guilt.

If the same standard were applied to another institution where child abuse has been commonplace, such as the public-school system—wouldn’t the suggestion be met with instant howls of protest, about intimidation and the denial of due process? And those protests would be justified.

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.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.