Priests in Limbo

Not all clergymen accused of sexual abuse are guilty. But wrongly accused priests have a tough time clearing their name.

Attorney Thomas Neuberger speaks alongside victims of clergy sexual abuse during a press conference Feb. 3, the day after a $77.4 million settlement agreement was reached with the Diocese of Wilmington, Del. A priest sex-abuse case against the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the order that operates Salesianum School, goes to trial Feb. 27, Neuberger said.
Attorney Thomas Neuberger speaks alongside victims of clergy sexual abuse during a press conference Feb. 3, the day after a $77.4 million settlement agreement was reached with the Diocese of Wilmington, Del. A priest sex-abuse case against the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the order that operates Salesianum School, goes to trial Feb. 27, Neuberger said. (photo: CNS photo/Don Blake, The Dialog)

Part II in a look at the problems facing falsely accused priests.

WASHINGTON — New allegations of clerical abuse have revived public outrage regarding weak oversight in U.S. chanceries, but there’s another related concern that worries priests: accused clerics denied due process by their own Church.

The explosive clergy sex abuse scandal and the U.S. hierarchy’s uphill struggle to regain credibility with the faithful and the public at large have resulted in pleas for forgiveness, promises of reform and financial settlements for thousands of victims.

But advocates for accused priests contend that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s “zero tolerance” policy has also spawned an unjust system that tramples on the rights of priests. In many cases, priests who have been found innocent remain barred from active ministry, while others who appeal their cases to the Vatican can be sidelined for years.

The simmering problem is grist for online blogs and rectory debates, but receives little attention in the secular media. Yet similar concerns were raised when the bishops approved the zero tolerance policy and related procedures.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, then-archbishop of Philadelphia, tried to amend the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that the U.S. bishops passed in Dallas in 2002 so that bishops would have to contact civil authorities only in response to allegations of sexual abuse deemed “credible” by each bishop.

“It’s hard to understand why, when someone makes an accusation that is obviously frivolous, it has to be reported,” Cardinal Bevilacqua said. “Once you involve the authorities, it goes into public record and it can ruin the reputation of a perfectly good priest for no reason. The priest has to live with a blemished public record, yet he’s completely innocent. The damage to his reputation will be very difficult to counter.”
Father Michael Maginot, a canon lawyer who works with the clergy support group Justice for Priests, said he knew of no case where a priest that had been tried and cleared by a diocesan tribunal was then fully reinstated in active ministry.

Father Maginot, who has represented 20 accused priests, explained that the local ordinary essentially decides the fate of the accused. The bishop directs the investigation into the alleged abuse, and also serves as the tribunal judge. Generally, several associates assist with the trial, and many dioceses hire private investigators.

“The number one problem,” said Father Maginot, is that every credible allegation of abuse of minors must go to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Once the case is sent to Rome, the congregation only communicates with the local bishop, not the accused or his advocate. The congregation expects the bishop to relay that communication to the accused. Father Maginot contended that an inconvenient outcome could easily be ignored.

Joe Maher, president of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, which assists bishops and superiors of religious orders to solve the problems of the priesthood, echoes Father Maginot’s concerns. Maher notes that the advocates of accused priests do not have access to case files and thus cannot respond to undisclosed evidence or subjective evaluations.

Maher argues that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should communicate directly with advocates, not only with bishops. He said that many of the accused did not even know the name of their accuser.

He added that some of the accused can be pressured by insurance companies to participate in pre-trial financial settlements designed to resolve a large number of civil claims alleging abuse and child endangerment in a diocese. In such cases, actual guilt or innocence becomes a secondary concern.  But after the settlement, said Maher, the priest looks guilty and thus is likely to be barred from reinstatement.

Vast Backlog of Cases

In the wake of the 2002 U.S. clergy abuse crisis, hundreds of appeals were forwarded to the Vatican, creating a vast backlog. Almost a decade later, Justice for Priests reports that hundreds of cases are still unresolved, languishing in an appeals process that may drag on for years.

Canon law stipulates that appeals should be resolved within months, and that the accused should continue to receive financial support from their diocese, but Father Maginot says that many of the accused rely on funds provided by lay supporters.

Complaints regarding “indefinite delays dating back to 2005 appeals” — as Joe Maher puts it — have been noted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In a 2010 interview posted on the Vatican’s website, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the prosecutor of the tribunal that investigates cases alleging the clerical abuse of minors, defended the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s record. Recent complaints, he insisted, were “unjustified comments. In 2003 and 2004 a great wave of cases flooded over our desks. Many of them came from the United States and concerned the past. Over recent years,.. we now seek to deal with new cases as they arise.”

Msgr. Scicluna confirmed that between 2001-2010 his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had investigated an astonishing 3,000 cases forwarded from dioceses all over the world, involving crimes allegedly committed over half a century.

Twenty percent of those cases resulted in a “full trial, penal or administrative, in the diocese of origin,” Msgr. Scicluna reported. Depending on the case, charges might be dismissed because the accused was judged to be innocent, or because there was insufficient evidence to establish guilt. Even when the accused was cleared of guilt, the ability of the accused to return to active ministry depended on what Msgr. Scicluna described as the discernment of “his fitness for public ministry.”

Church authorities may have good reason to bar a priest from active ministry. To the uninitiated, however, the outcome of a trial can appear confusing, or even unjust.

Many dioceses contacted for this story did not return calls asking for clarification regarding their guidelines for reinstatement, and due process for those appealing decisions. While diocesan spokesmen are quick to outline the “Safe Environment” policies established since 2002, “talking points” on the return of clerics once vilified as “predator priests” are rarely introduced.

Mary Jane Doerr, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, insists that the hierarchy cares deeply about the rights of accused priests.

“The bishops that we work with are careful to honor the allegation, but also to make sure that it’s credible. They have no reason to ruin a man’s career,” said Doerr.

Doerr suggested that lawyers representing an accused priest might ignore troubling details that could figure in a bishop’s decision to bar reinstatement. The public “may only hear one side of the story,” she said.

Blogging from Prison

Perhaps the most publicized case of a priest challenging his conviction for child sexual abuse is Father Gordon MacRae of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. The priest has spent 16 years of a life sentence in prison.

In 2005, Father MacRae’s cause was championed by Dorothy Rabinowitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, whose columns appear on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.

Previously, Rabinowitz’s research and advocacy won the release of preschool operators unjustly convicted of child sex abuse. Subsequently, she wrote two columns outlining Father MacRae’s case but failed to win his release.

Today, Father MacRae continues to maintain his innocence. In a post on his blog, “These Stone Walls — Musings from Prison of a Priest Falsely Accused,” written in his overcrowded prison cell, he quoted Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights: “There is no segment of the American population with less civil liberties protection than the average American Catholic priest.”

The Diocese of Manchester doesn’t share Rabinowitz’s belief in the priest’s innocence. “Father MacRae pleaded guilty to felonious sexual assault,” stated diocesan spokesman Kevin Donovan.

Rabinowitz offered an exculpatory back story to Father MacRae’s guilty plea, but Donovan referred this reporter to local media coverage of the trial. Donovan also would not address Rabinowitz’s charge that the Manchester Diocese issued a pre-trial statement that lent credence to the abuse allegations.

A few dioceses acknowledge the struggle to accommodate both “zero tolerance” policies and the rights of the accused. Dan Andriacco, a spokesman for the Diocese of Cincinnati, which has reinstated several priests cleared of charges, believes it is possible to adhere to the Dallas Charter and also provide due process for the accused. Joseph Zwilling, the long-time spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, noted that Cardinal Edward Egan, emeritus archbishop, had appointed a priest cleared of charges to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The prominent appointment signaled the cardinal’s trust and desire to restore the priest’s reputation, said Zwilling.

Amid fresh allegations of clerical abuse and episcopal negligence in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, the rights of the accused are unlikely to draw much sympathy or media attention.

But Father Roger Landry, a pastor in the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and the editor of its newspaper, underscores the importance of fighting false accusations. He has written about the struggles of Church leaders and saints unfairly tarnished in past scandals. While some have suffered silently, others sought to defend their honor.

St. John Vianney, once accused of “impregnating a young woman who lived near the church in Ars,” came to realize that he was not only obligated to defend his own reputation, wrote Father Landry, “but also the reputation of the priesthood. For that reason, he undertook a defense, lest by failing to do so, he would give any plausibility to the vile rumors.”

More recently, Church leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and Cardinal George Pell of Sydney shared that conviction, noted Father Landry. They also understood that a vigorous defense would help ”dissuade others from making similar false accusations in the future.”

Register correspondent Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland..