JOSEPH MAHER was just minding his business. Then one day, a falsely accused priest needed help.

It all started in April 2002 when a visiting priest in his local parish was accused of raping a 40-year-old choir member. Convinced he was innocent, Maher, two other businessmen and a priest pulled together money and lawyers for the priest’s defense. The priest was acquitted about six months later.

The story garnered international media attention. Soon, other accused priests and their friends began contacting Maher, a Fortune 500 consultant, for help. As a result, Opus Bono Sacerdotii (“work for the good of the priesthood”) was born.

As president of the Detroit-based Opus Bono Sacerdotii, Maher has appeared on many television and radio networks, including CNN, Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, and National Public Radio. He recently spoke to Register correspondent Sue Ellin Browder about his vocation.

What do you see as the mission of Opus Bono Sacerdotii?

As we say on our website, our purpose is to find “solutions to the problems confronting priests and religious in accordance with the authentic teaching of the Church, and of the Holy Father and his predecessors.”

How many priests have you helped?

To date, more than 2,000 priests have contacted us for assistance.

How do you help accused priests?

We do whatever we have to do for them. With the first priest, we provided for both his canonical defense and his legal defense. We also paid all his basic living expenses, found a place for him to live, protected him, and found some meaningful work for him to do. That’s what we try to do with all the priests.

That must cost a bundle.

It does. In the case of criminal or civil cases, we can’t always fund that out of pocket or out of our resources. So we’ll mount a fund-raising campaign for the priest. We’ll help him raise the money for his legal defense. We also pay for his insurance. We give monthly grants to priests all across the country.

How do you manage financially?

We go month-to-month. We’ve still got a couple mortgages we have to figure out how to pay for this month. But we’re used to that now. We take the money we’ve got and divvy it up. We do what we can. Then we go on to the next month.

Do the bishops support your work?

Yes. Many bishops have contacted us and been here to our offices. We’ve even had the Holy See ask us to step in and intervene with priests. This past March, the cardinal-archbishop [Cardinal Adam Maida] here gave us permission to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in our offices permanently. So we have a chapel here. We have priests and bishops who come and say Mass.

A Chicago priest recently accused of sexual abuse says the charges are false. He has filed a defamation lawsuit against his accusers. Are you seeing more false accusations lately?

Yes. In this last year, in particular, we’re seeing a lot of accusations that are blatantly false. Not all of them, of course, but many.

No one would suggest a guilty priest should stay at his post. But what do you suggest that a priest do if he’s accused, but innocent?

I tell priests this: If it really is a false allegation, scream it from the rooftops and never stop saying it.

Do you advise falsely accused priests to sue their accusers for defamation?

Actually, we advise them not to sue — for three reasons. First, it is absolutely unconscionable for a priest to think he’s going to sue somebody, because he always has to remain open to the repentance and conversion of the sinner. So it’s not an easy thing for a priest to do.

Second, lawsuits generate so much publicity they cause anti-Catholic groups to come after priests with even more vengeance. And third, priests need to exhaust all processes through the Church before they go the civil-suit route.

But you said there’s a catch.

That’s right. A priest only has a certain amount of time to file a lawsuit against an individual. In most states, it’s one year from the time the first accusation was made. Some priests file against their accusers so they won’t lose the chance to sue and clear their good names. Then they decide later whether they want to move forward.

Worldwide, how many priests have been removed from ministry?

More than 5,000. The problem, as I see it, is this: A priest is typically removed because he cannot disprove an allegation.

So it’s a real crisis?

Someone in the news media asked me, “What about this crisis?” I said, “We don’t have a crisis. We now have an epidemic.”

If a priest is accused, do you think he should resign as pastor of his parish?

We advise him not to do that because he loses his canonical rights. There are certain canonical rights attached to being a pastor.

What happens if an accused priest does resign?

He leaves the rectory and is basically on his own. Very few of these guys have places to go. Then the story is released to the media, which of course drives everyone to believe the priest is guilty whether he is or not. In many of these cases, now the priests are out, their names are all over the news, they don’t have a chance to defend themselves.    

One often sees in the media that an accusation against a priest is “credible.” What does this mean?

The term credible, as it’s typically used today, comes from the psychological community.

And in the psychological community, this word means only that “the statement came from the source.” It has nothing to do with whether the statement is true or false.

So if Joe Blow said he was harmed, then it’s credible because Joe Blow said it. Whether Joe Blow is telling the truth or not doesn’t mean a hill of beans.

So you’re saying that a credible charge doesn’t mean a priest is guilty?

Correct. “Credible,” as it’s used by the Church and the media, has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. It just means the person who said it really did say it. And most people don’t realize that.

How long does it take a priest, if he is falsely accused, to clear his good name?

Often it never happens. The canonical process to determine a priest’s guilt or innocence can take a year or longer. Meanwhile, in the “court of public opinion” — that is, in the media — the priest’s good name is often destroyed, even if he’s innocent.

It’s politically incorrect, of course, even to mention false accusations. The priest is branded as “in denial” or “defensive.” All reasonable people need to realize what’s happening and not rush to judgment.

Sue Ellin Browder is based

in Willits, California.