Allegation and Punishment


In a triumph of curiosity over experience, I occasionally have a look at the soi disant National Catholic Reporter blog. The article I read this morning profiled a petition delivered to the Congregation for Bishops through the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington. The petition, filed by a group called “the Catholic Whistleblowers”, asks for an investigation into abuse of ecclesiastical office by the Archbishop of Newark, John Myers. If he is found “complicit”, an interesting term, they have asked for his removal from office, reduction to the lay state and assignment to a life of prayer and penance.

“What’s this?” I asked myself, “Those boisterous scamps at the NCR have managed to correctly identify a canonical petition as a petition and not a ‘lawsuit’?” I was intrigued enough to read the entire article. The balance of the post outlined the alleged offences of Archbishop Meyers, which centred around a supposed failure to act “definitively and decisively” with priests accused of sexual misconduct, either in his current position in Newark or in his previous diocese of Peoria.

I have, to be clear, no knowledge of the details of any of the cases cited in the petition. Nor have I ever lived in, or worked for, either of the dioceses in question. Nor have I ever met Archbishop Meyers; my comments as follows do not pertain to any of the specifics of person, place, or case; I will merely observe that the case(s) as presented in the article seemed very confused and the “just penalties” they requested canonically problematic, to say the very least. What I want to address is a more general issue:

The article quoted the Archdiocese of Newark’s head of communications as saying, in response to the petition, that Archbishop Meyers had, in his current position, “removed nineteen priests from ministry… [as] clear evidence that he takes seriously any and all allegations of abuse.” The article also noted that the recent resignations of Bishop Finn in Kansas City and Archbishop Neinstedt in Minneapolis-St.Paul gave the petitioners “encouragement” that their case might become “part of the same pattern”. These two items, from opposite sides of the issue, illustrate the biggest problem with clerical discipline in the Church today.

Having worked with priests whose lives and ministries were ruined by accusations of sexual crimes later proved to be malicious and not just false but factually impossible, I have an instinctual reserve about the unnuanced boast of having removed nineteen priests from ministry as a “serious” response to “any and all allegations”. I’d be far more interested to know what happened after they were removed. While, tragically, some dioceses in the past sacrificed the victims of abuse to protect themselves and their priests, the opposite pattern is now emerging; innocent priests are removed from ministry as the beginning and end of the response to any allegation, regardless of how credible or incredible. While I am in no way suggesting that this is what has happened in Newark, both approaches represent a shocking denial of justice to all parties.

The Code of Canon Law, the norms issued by the Holy See, and the Dallas Charter, all provide for a comprehensive response to allegations, one which should diligently seek the truth of the matter, provide for the right of defence and, where necessary, impose penalties, not only for the conversion of the offender but for the public restoration of justice. The restoration of public justice requires, it would logically follow, that proper procedure is followed, rights are safeguarded and a determination is made regarding the allegations. Given the cataclysmic effects of any allegation against a priest in the present atmosphere, it would seem that determination, while not necessarily the whole process, should be public, whether it is of innocence or guilt.

When dioceses and the media agree that the simple removal of priests from ministry following an allegation is both an end in itself and a useful measure of intent, they silently exclude any determination of innocence or guilt from the metric; what matters is the accusation, for which the response is always the same.  Paradoxically we end up with that same situation both sides insist they never want to see repeated: institutional indifference to the demands of justice and the rights of the individual.

The same paradox is illustrated by the recent spate of episcopal resignations-under-a-cloud. When the former Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal O’Brien, left office following allegations of sexual misconduct with priests, through an abuse of his office, nothing was known other than that his resignation had been accepted. His case is radically different from those of Archbishop Neinstedt and Bishop Finn, but the problem is the outcome was the same; no process, no determination of culpability or guilt, no punishment, just a loss of office.  While the unbiased and agenda-free determination of the sd NCR is that “they had it coming”, I have no way of knowing, and neither do they. If there is no determination of innocence or guilt there is no separation of the innocent from the guilty and no interest in justice.

The adage rightly says that justice in secret is justice denied, not only to the accused, be they innocent or guilty, but to the society which is the Church. When a cleric of any rank is removed or “resigned” because of allegations made in public but assessed, if at all, in private, both they and the community they serve become the victims of summary justice.

The criticism of the Church, especially in the United States, has been that the clergy were above the law. Now it seems that they are, all to often, held to be beneath its most basic protections. Removal from office has become the endgame of everyone with a grievance against a cleric, real or imagined, fair or unfair. Loss of office, even through willing resignation, has become tantamount to a conviction or admission of guilt.

It is to be hoped that the new Tribunal being constituted by the Holy See to address allegations of abuse of office by bishops will be a first step in recovering the right to due process for all who serve the Church; otherwise every priest and bishop becomes the potential subject of a good old-fashioned trial by media.


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