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currently under investigation

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Aug 24, 2005

Here's an interesting case thrown up by allegations of child abuse in Alaska. Jesuit Father Richard McCaffrey denies charges that he abused a girl while working in western Alaska 25 years ago. Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler, within whose diocese McCaffrey was recently working, believes the charges have merit and ordered McCaffrey removed.

Taking seriously McCaffrey's denial, his Jesuit superior, Oregon Provincial Fr. John Whitney, S.J., has announced that he will conduct his own investigation into the allegations and said that, in the meantime, McCaffrey "will be provided with a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, independent of the Society."

"We are not trying to run a parallel church," Whitney said. "We respect the rights of the bishop and Father McCaffrey to have a clear hearing. If I come to the conclusion that these are not well-founded allegations, I would ask the bishop to re-evaluate the conclusion and present him with whatever new information I had, if this happens."

Whitney said McCaffrey's situation is different from other priests who have had child sexual abuse charges brought against them. "It's new because the other men have been dead, or the few people who aren't, have admitted some level of misconduct," Whitney said.

The civil lawsuit complicates matters even more.

"It makes it much more complex," Whitney said. "If I settle, I effectively say I believe (McCaffrey has committed) misconduct and it puts him as adversarial to the Society. I think it will make it more difficult to make a settlement prior to going to trial. It will make it more difficult and more painful for the various parties and that makes me very sad," Whitney said.

Whitney is right that a settlement is tantamount to an admission of guilt, and if McCaffrey is innocent it would be a gross injustice to settle with the plaintiff simply in order to avoid expense or unwelcome publicity. Nor is Whitney in a position to take the Diocese's judgment as conclusive. On the other hand, if McCaffrey is guilty and his attorney does his job by defending him aggressively, that almost always involves a forensic attack on the character of his accuser, which not only compounds the injustice done the victim, but presents her with the horrifying spectacle of the Church arrayed in force to denounce her falsely as a liar and slanderer -- the same Church to which she must repair to seek her salvation.

The situation has certain parallels with the case of the deadbeat dad Redemptorist whose misconduct ensnarled the Archdiocese of Portland in which it took place; the misconduct was undisputed in the Redemptorist's case, of course, while it's the very point of issue in McCaffrey's. Still, one can envision a (theoretical) conflict of interest proceeding from the fact that a diocese might be more anxious to cover its tail by moving precipitously to yank religious order priests, while the order itself is naturally more concerned for the reputation and career of its own man. The belief that, in the case of either party, impartial and rigorously applied justice will trump any lesser considerations depends on a high degree of trust. At present, that commodity is scarce.

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