False Accusations of Sexual Abuse Can Leave Lasting Scars

Two recent cases, in the U.S. and Ireland, have highlighted how the Church’s commitment to take all accusations against clergy seriously sometimes injures innocent parties.

Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis
Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis (photo: Catholic News Agency)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A decision last month not to charge Archbishop John Nienstedt in connection with an allegation that he inappropriately touched a boy during a group photo was good news for a Church battered by scandal in recent years.

The determination by the Ramsey County Attorney's Office in Minnesota that there was insufficient evidence to support a charge against the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis was announced March 11, days before another priest, Father Eugene Boland of Northern Ireland, returned to ministry after his acquittal on sexual-assault charges involving a teenage girl.

Both cases raise questions about the nature of such charges and how the process for resolving them affects those who are accused, particularly when they are found to be innocent or when the allegations lack sound evidence.

Even before Archbishop Nienstedt was cleared, the Catholic League's president, Bill Donohue, called the allegation involving an unidentified male into question, saying the archbishop had been “the subject of a nonstop crusade orchestrated by ex-Catholics, and Catholics in rebellion against the Church, simply because he stands for everything they are not: He is a loyal son of the Catholic Church.”

Archbishop Nienstedt has consistently defended the Church’s moral teaching and had taken a strong stand against so-called same-sex marriage, which was legalized by Minnesota in 2013, after voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would effectively ban the practice. He also has been outspoken against abortion and, according to LifeSiteNews.com, has withheld the Eucharist from activists wearing pro-homosexual buttons and sashes.

Once the decision not to bring charges against Archbishop Nienstedt was announced, Donohue said in a March 12 news release that he believed that what happened to the archbishop reflected a deeper problem. “We are living in a culture of hate — hatred of all matters Catholic — led by those whose goal it is to take down a bishop. Every bishop is a potential target, but none more than those who are seen as being inimical to the ‘progressive’ agenda.”

Since the decision not to charge the archbishop, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office has asked police in St. Paul to reopen the investigation, not because of any new evidence, but to prevent reports from being made public so that other elements that have nothing to do with the archbishop can be examined.

Archbishop Nienstedt did not respond to questions from the Register about the accusation and its resolution, except to reiterate the archdiocese’s commitment to creating safe environments in schools and parishes, caring for those harmed by members of the Church, facilitating healing and restoring trust. Although the archbishop had voluntarily stepped down from his duties during the initial three-month investigation, a spokesman said he would remain in office now that the case has been reopened.

Just months before Archbishop Nienstedt was accused of sexual abuse, he had created a task force to conduct an independent review of clergy sexual-misconduct procedures in response to criticism of the archdiocese’s handling of previous cases.

A canon lawyer who formerly had worked for the archdiocese claimed that Archbishop Nienstedt had failed to heed her warnings about the past misconduct of a priest who later pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct involving minors and possession of child pornography. The former employee, who spoke about her concerns to Minnesota Public Radio, also said the archdiocese had not immediately taken concerns or allegations to local law enforcement, instead conducting its own investigations in advance.

Although the sexual-abuse accusation against Archbishop Nienstedt involved an incident that allegedly occurred in 2009 during a group confirmation photo, police and the archdiocese were not told about it until Dec. 16, 2013, when a priest reported having learned of it from the boy’s mother. The Ramsey County Attorney's Office said its decision not to charge the archbishop was based on an extensive investigation by St. Paul police.


Dubious Validity

Even as the Church has worked over the last two decades to take all such allegations seriously, concerns have been expressed over the validity of some accusations.

In a 10-page declaration submitted to the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2010, Los Angeles attorney Donald Steier said his own investigations had revealed that many claims of clerical sexual abuse were completely false.

According to a Newsbusters report, Steier, who had worked on more than 100 cases involving Catholic clergy in Los Angeles, told of a retired FBI agent who estimated about half of the claims made in clergy cases he investigated were either false or so greatly exaggerated that the truth would not have supported prosecution for child sexual abuse.

Steier also alleged in his declaration that the advocacy organization SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) makes available so much detailed information about alleged perpetrators and their methods that such reports, in effect, provide a “blueprint” for anyone who wants to make a false claim of sexual abuse against a priest.

However, Dr. Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, which advises the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, said the panel has not seen an increase in false accusations of sexual abuse against priests. “Those cases emerge, but I wouldn’t say that there’s this tidal wave of false accusations. The best way to deal with this is every accusation is to be taken seriously, and when deemed a priest has not committed abuse, that priest or bishop is exonerated publicly once the investigation has been completed.”

Cesareo declined to comment on Donohue’s statement about the allegations against Archbishop Nienstedt. He did say that he thinks the case and the way in which the archbishop responded to it by removing himself from active ministry showed that the process works and that the Church is serious about taking action.


Can Take Years to Resolve

In the U.S., the civil process is used to determine whether an allegation is deemed credible. If no charges are brought, a priest may return to ministry without further action on the part of the Church, as Archbishop Nienstedt did. However, once a priest is charged, and even if he is later acquitted, the case is referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for further review and to determine if and how he can return to ministry.

Unfortunately, Cesareo said, such cases can take years to work their way through the system.

Although Cesareo believes that the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has provided the U.S. Church with a good process for dealing with allegations, it currently is undergoing a revision that will take about 18 months and will look at each article for possible improvements, streamlining and strengthening. A committee of three representatives from the review board and three members of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children is working on the update. Additionally, all bishops were invited to send comments, and past and present members of the review board and superiors of men’s and women’s religious communities were also consulted.

Cesareo said it is highly unlikely that the current zero-tolerance approach, which provides for notifying authorities and removal of a priest from ministry as soon as an allegation is found to be credible, would be changed, although it has been criticized as declaring an accused priest guilty until proven innocent. “I think it is almost a necessity, given the nature of the allegations of sexual abuse . . . and in order for the Church to be credible in showing that it is taking all allegations seriously.”


Father Boland’s Case

Still, for a priest who is charged and later found innocent, the lengthy canonical process following a civil acquittal can be difficult because it holds the priest’s future in abeyance until his case makes its way through the system.

Although the resolution of Archbishop Nienstedt’s case took just a few months, Father Boland, who was accused in 2010, was out of ministry for four years before being reinstated March 15 as pastor of his parish of Cappagh in County Tyrone in the Diocese of Derry. The diocese is located in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Furthermore, although Father Boland was acquitted of five charges of indecent assault after an eight-day trial in 2012, it took almost two more years for a canonical process to be completed so that he could return to his parish.

According to the Irish Independent website, Father Boland is one of about a dozen priests in Ireland who have been forced to step aside until the allegations against them were proven to be unfounded. Father Boland said the two years he was awaiting his civil trial and eventual acquittal were “the darkest two years of his life” and that the journey to exoneration through both the civil and canonical processes was “long and painful.”

Even for those who are cleared of allegations, an accusation casts a long shadow. Asked whether a priest could ever recover from an accusation once his name is cleared, Cesareo said the bishop of such a priest plays a key role in restoring his reputation. Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “Once something like that is out there, it becomes difficult to completely overcome.”

Indeed, the long process of exoneration has caused continuing difficulties for Father Boland. After just two weeks back in active ministry, he resigned at the end of March from his position as pastor of the Cappagh parish in order to seek additional help and guidance in transitioning back to active ministry before returning again to full-time ministry.


A Presumption of Guilt?

Robert Flummerfelt, a canon and civil lawyer who has represented more than 200 priests accused of sexual abuse, said dioceses have become much more cautious and aggressive in handling allegations of clergy sexual abuse and making sure they are following due diligence in vetting accusations. A practical result of this, he said, is that priests are being put on the defensive in trying to prove their innocence, even as the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People states, “During the investigation, the accused enjoys the presumption of innocence, and all appropriate steps shall be taken to protect his reputation.”

Flummerfelt said part of the problem with the zero-tolerance policy requiring removal from ministry of any priest or deacon accused of sexual abuse of a minor is that it presumes the accuser is acting in good faith. If someone makes a false accusation, he said, the Church does not have the resources available to the civil system to thoroughly vet the accuser. And, he said, Church investigators typically lack the real-life experience of civil investigators.

“When you go to canon law school, we don’t have the same adversarial process as the civil process does. There is no cross-examination, and we are not trained how to depose someone. So when I’m sitting in a trial for priests, well-intentioned doctors of canon law might miss things a civil attorney would not. We should have people familiar with both legal systems.”

An accusation made in bad faith, he added, tends to favor the accuser more than the accused. After the vetting process is conducted in the wake of an accusation, he said, “The priest is going to be put on ice, and his reputation may very well be negatively implicated.”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.