The Boston Massacre and the Catholic Priesthood

John Adams’ courageous decision in 1770 should be taken as a model for today.

Gilbert Stuart, “John Adams,” c. 1800/1815
Gilbert Stuart, “John Adams,” c. 1800/1815 (photo: Public Domain)

My family and I recently toured many historic sites in the Northeast. Among these were the sites of the Boston Massacre and the nearby cemetery where the five victims were buried. This visit reminded me of John Adams’ unique role in this affair. The British captain Thomas Preston and the other Redcoats charged with murder sought lawyers to defend them. Many turned them down (including several British loyalists). It simply wasn’t popular to defend such men in the days leading up to the American Revolution. Then, seven months after the incident (in October 1770), a 35-year-old lawyer named John Adams agreed to take the case.

While he knew this would be a deeply unpopular move among his colonial contemporaries, he also believed in justice. Captain Preston was skeptical and didn’t assume there was any chance they would end up being defended well, let alone getting a fair trial. They all faced the death penalty if found guilty of murder. Much to Preston’s surprise, Adams and his assistant argued the case with aplomb, and Captain Preston was acquitted. (Over the course of the trial, nearly two dozen witnesses indicated that the soldiers were provoked, and that one soldier’s gun went off – accidentally – only after it was stuck by an object from the crowd. Another shot rang out from an uncertain source, and then the word “Fire!” was yelled, but no one was quite sure who gave this command.) Ultimately, it became clear that the mob put the soldiers in a precarious situation, and their response was largely one of self-defense. All the other soldiers were subsequently acquitted save for two, who were found guilty of a much lesser charge of manslaughter. They had their thumbs branded with the letter “M” so that they would not be treated so lightly if charged for anything else in the future. (Historical side note: This trial saw the first use of a judge using the phrase “reasonable doubt.”)

So, what does this have to do with our view of the Catholic priesthood today? Time and time again, we experience all Catholic priests being seen with suspicion by much of the population — as if by their very nature they must be guilty of some sinister sexual crime against young people. I know several good and holy priests, in fact, who have been verbally abused in public and even spat upon, just because they had the audacity to wear their Roman collar in public. Virtually no group in our society today is treated with such prejudice. Every demographic, every occupation, and every institution have some bad apples, but we rightly are intolerant when someone uses those few examples to stereotype the entire lot. And yet our society seems to think it’s perfectly okay to use that broad brush for priests.

One example from my youth is telling. I went to a Catholic school where we regularly encountered several priests affiliated with the school and parish. One was clearly disturbed and had a penchant for trying to rub up against young boys. He would often come up behind us and grip us in a bear hug — picking us up off the ground for maximum effect. We complained to our teachers often, but to no avail, and this man’s bad behavior seemed to have been well-known among others who should’ve been able to do something about it. However, our champion came in the form of one of my eighth-grade classmates who one day had had enough. He told the young priest sternly not to touch him, but the priest attempted his bear hug anyway. Then my classmate broke free and turned around and punched the priest right in the gut with great force. We were all stunned (and appreciative) and no one in my class ever had trouble from this priest again.

Sadly, though, this priest’s actions with others didn’t stop. We learned years later that he was charged with sexual abuse of a minor, was laicized, convicted in criminal court, and died in jail. From the very start, this man had no business being a priest. This should’ve been clear in seminary and long before he was ordained. The Church formation process and hierarchy simply failed, as it has done in hundreds of other cases.

At that same time and at that same parish and school, we had another man — the pastor — who was a model priest. I spent hundreds of hours with him as he took us altar boys camping, organized tournaments playing the board game “Risk,” and even taught some of us to hunt alligators (though not with guns) and to ride a unicycle. At a time when my father was largely absent due to work, his role modeling to me of what a man was supposed to be was incredibly helpful. So, at the same time I was subjected to the other disturbed priest, I also had this guy showing me what a genuinely manly and holy priest really was. That taught me at an early age not to judge an entire group by one poor example. And yet, this wonderful and holy priest was later accused of abusing a minor. In spite of being completely innocent, his reputation as a priest was forever disgraced, and he would never be the same again.

People get rightly angry when a priest is found to be guilty of some heinous act against a young person. However, the line between being “accused” and being “guilty” appears to have completely blurred. Many are unconcerned with waiting to hear the evidence or to let due process take its course. Instead, we’ve implemented some sort of de facto Napoleonic Code of “guilty until proven innocent.” Then, you have the extreme example of Cardinal Pell in Australia who seems by any reasonable measure to be innocent of the charges brought against him. And yet, he’s not only been convicted, but has lost his appeal. “Kangaroo Court” is taking on a whole new meaning Down Under these days.

So, back to John Adams and the Boston Massacre. What’s the lesson? The popular position back then was to simply assume the British soldiers were guilty. Most weren’t interested in evidence or due process. And yet, John Adams gave the truth a chance, and the embryonic wheels of justice in America made an incredibly important turn that day. Catholic priests deserve that same justice – that same benefit of the doubt. If someone is found to be guilty of some horrendous act, then yes – justice should be served – painful though it may be. (And God help the bishops or others who pile on the sin of covering up such sins!) But an accusation should be nothing more than that – an accusation. Until that accusation becomes a valid conviction, we would all do well to reserve judgment – and resist bigotry.