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Readers respond regarding clergy abuse, false accusations

By Matt C. Abbott

The following are several (slightly edited) e-mails I received in response to my March 18 column "Was priest falsely accused?" Many thanks to those who provided me with insightful comments on this sensitive matter.

"Father J." of the Archdiocese of Boston:

    'In response to your recent article: Priests are falsely accused regularly. There is no effort to protect priests from false accusations, simply because the interests of the bishops seem to be to protect themselves, the diocesan officials, and the property of the diocese. Canon law is not followed; this is basically ecclesiastical lawlessness.

    'I know of a priest falsely accused, a holy priest, who has been ruined. The Archdiocese of Boston never investigated the case and some of the principle witnesses have died. The people who determine whether an accusation is 'credible' are not the brightest bulbs on the tree and their main concerns are the interests of the archbishop.

    'I know of another priest who was accused and he raised money and got a lawyer and was cleared, but he was emotionally ruined. By the way, the diocese does not give financial help to priests in order to get lawyers. Most priests don't have significant financial resources. The dioceses also do nothing to restore the reputations of priests. The accusation is always on the front page and the clearing (if mentioned at all) is tucked in along with the legal notices.

    'I know another priest who was accused, got his own lawyer with a small loan from the Archdiocese of Boston, and was cleared. The priest had been told by one archdiocesan official not to worry about the loan, but now the chancellor, who is paid $250,000 a year, sent a letter to the priest suggesting that an archdiocesan mortgage be put on his house. This is how priests are treated.

    'We priest have two targets on our bodies: The one on our front sides is aimed at by the representatives of the culture of death, and the one on our back sides is aimed at by the chancery. The fraternal link between bishops and their priests in many dioceses has been destroyed. Dirty little secret arrangements have been made with state and federal officials so that the bishops won't be prosecuted, even though they and their staffs are the guilty ones who knew the priests who were abusing minors. These agreements make the bishop, who is suppose to be the spiritual father of the priest, into the prime enforcer of the civil law. These bishops and their staffs live in fear of prosecution, so they err on the side of harshness. Any accusation is thus credible. We are supposed to announce the Gospel with courage, but we are all alone. Any priest can be destroyed at any time.

    'We are supposed to be able to depend on our bishops and we cannot. The people of the parishes are supportive, but we can be cut off from them and have our faculties withdrawn at the drop of a hat. It seems as though bishops and their staff have no fear of God and do not think that they will be judged for destroying the reputation and ministry of a priest.

    'There is also the fact that dioceses have become businesses run by highly-paid laymen. For them it is a 9 to 5 job. They have no sympathy for the life of the priest, it seems to me. And when they find a better gig, they will jump ship.

    'If the Catholic people want priests in the future, they had better seek justice for priests. A priest who abuses the young can hurt thousands of people, and a priest who is falsely accused is destroyed and thousands of people are also hurt — their faith being shaken.'

David Clohessy:

    'A priest or religious falsely accused of molestation is essentially ruined for life. Sorry, Matt, I disagree: Dozens and dozens of accused priests have been returned to ministry after Church officials have deemed the allegations 'unsubstantiated' or false. None, to the best of my knowledge, has later quit the priesthood or killed themselves or been hospitalized.

    'The bottom line: When there is doubt, we must err on the side of safeguarding the safety of vulnerable children over the career of a powerful adult. The harm done to the adult is severe. But the harm done to the child is incalculable. Thanks for hearing me out.'

Greg Bullough:

    'Your column is interesting, but the alarm bells when off when the second accusation was mentioned. We call that 'corroboration,' and it tends to come about when the diocese goes public, as other victims who thought that they were the only ones, that maybe it was their fault, realize that it wasn't them...when it was the predator, self-indulgent, cleric.

    'While it's fine that priests have an advocate (everyone deserves one) we have to remember that it is the clergy that has brought this situation upon themselves. If they protest their treatment now, it is very analogous to that of victims who were arbitrarily not believed in past decades.

    'Above all it is the culture of clericalism which led to these abuses and the subsequent cover-ups and white-washes that have brought us to this juncture. Go to a prison: They are filled with innocent men. Just ask the prisoners.

    'Yes, the process may be imperfect, and yes, priests protest the number of years that have elapsed. However, that is a circular argument when you consider that abusers (often with the complicity of their bishops) worked very hard to keep the victims quiet over the years.

    'Opus Bono Sacerdotii has its place, and has generally done work in a way that is quiet and does not re-victimize victims. But even they must understand that, overwhelmingly, there are far, far more clergy who have escaped their abusive pasts than there are clergy who are falsely accused.'

Lorraine Keess:

    'I have read with great heartache your article 'Was priest falsely accused?' I will pray for the priest who wrote that gut-wrenching account of his accusation and any others that may be suffering the same persecution.

    'Through all the turmoil of the reality of real predators offending under the guise of priestly ministry comes the sinister reality of false accusations. Personally, I believe that there is an epidemic of false accusations and the subject has not been sufficiently explored. We fear that by exploring the issue of false accusations, this would make us look like deniers that any real offenses have occurred, right? Also, in all likelihood we would be accused of adding to the pain of the victims of real abuse by addressing the subject of false allegations.

    'Catholics are between a rock and a hard place and I believe this to be the cunning strategy of the forces of evil. We must not be afraid to address the issue of false allegations in the midst of true abuse crimes that are coming to light in these trying times. The victims of false allegations need to be profiled and defended, too.

    'I am aware that both the Canadian and American Psychiatric Associations have made clear the ambiguity of memory, warning about those therapeutic techniques that supposedly uncover 'repressed memories.' This is important to know, especially in regard to allegations that go back so many years and suddenly come to the forefront.

    'Motivations for false allegations vary from outright lies that stem from malice or a desire to grab a windfall of money to a sincere belief that one has been violated after going through therapeutic techniques that conjure up a lost memory. Thanks for the article. I pray everyday that the Lord will expose truth where it needs to be exposed.'

Stephen Hand:

    'Surely the seepage of a culture of death has done enough that is real enough, but it has never been difficult for the powers and lawyer-sharks to find false accusers who respond to the lures of arms full of cash. Just to defend against such accusations would cost millions — the lawyers know how to force 'settlements.''

Terry Carroll:

    'There's no question that the scandal of abuse is a dark time for our Church. I'm not sure, however, that the fallout from the scandal isn't worse than the offenses themselves. This fallout doesn't just affect priests who are subject to the presumption of guilt by virtue of their collar. The need to protect ourselves has become a cancer throughout the faith community. How can we call it progress when we can't even allow communion to be brought to the sick and shut-ins without chaperoned ministers who have passed all manner of criminal background checks? How can it be progress when everyone must be assumed to be potentially harmful to us? Are we really safer, or do we just need to appear that way? In the desire to make sure everyone is safe, have we not sacrificed something more?

    'I have been accused of latent Donatism in my criticisms of faithless and disobedient clergy. Have we not spread this attitude to all the faithful? Is everyone now to be presumed unworthy of ministry unless first proven beyond reproach? Is no one worthy to pastor or minister unless first beatified?

    'As you know, my talents are not available in any setting where I must first prove, not that I am talented, but worthy of trust. I don't know how today's priests live from day to day without Xanax. I understand the courage it takes to wear a collar in public. It shouldn't be that way. Yes, there are truly unworthy priests who must be removed from ministry. There are truly unworthy laity who must be confronted and separated from the faith community as well. But this can't be the presumed norm. We are becoming what we always used to laugh about when we thought of Soviet society: No one can trust anyone else.

    'The former pastor in Wichita Falls could probably write a letter similar to the one below, and he was the victim of a preemptive not a reactive strike (no one ever said that he did anything, only that he might). And while we're rounding up the usual suspects, we let even worse deformations of the faithful from the pulpit and liturgy go unaddressed. I really don't know which is worse: priests who might sin and even do sin, or priests who have lost their faith and inflict their personal darkness on far more victims than abusers do.'

Joseph Cantone:

    'This is a timely piece for me. A priest from my parish was recently relieved of duties. He is in his early 70s and has been a priest for many years. Our pastor did not want to make any comment as to the whys. However, because of the multi-year and never-ending scandal involving children, he was put upon to speak to the issue.

    'This is an issue that should be spoken to because the parishioners have a right to know something. He was a well-liked priest. What people wanted to know was that it did not involve children. As it turned out the charges were leveled by a woman who he claims he does not know. The woman is in a parish in New Jersey, where he once served many years ago.

    'He is in the same position, I would think, as the priest in the article. He is saying Masses at home for donations and I don't know what he is doing for money. I don't know if they have cut off his medical coverage with his duties. I also do not know if the charges are provable, or if the event(s) happened. It has shaken the parish — that I know. We were told this can take forever to sift through and come to a determination on. He may very well be dead before a determination is made.

    'Is it a shame? Yes. Can anyone now decide to bring charges for whatever reason? Yes. Is there any other way than to sit these priests down and relieve them of their duties? I don't think so. The bishops and anyone in authority better be very careful not to even give a hint of impropriety such as trying to hush or sweep these things under the rug. They are worried about themselves first, I think. There has been quite a backlash against bishops since the first Boston scandal. People have little or no sympathy for priests today brought up on charges.

    'I hope our priest and the one in your article are exonerated if they are innocent, or convicted if they are guilty. I'm sure the process could be sped up, no reason not to be sped up, and I don't mean a rush to judgment. Great article, Matt. It hits home for a lot of people like me. May God be merciful and just to both of these men.'

William P. Grossklas:

    'Interesting article. Again, in this, I see how the government destroys. Were it not for government, it is highly doubtful many of these cases would see the light of day, much less so many priests be victimized. I don't think that is a bad thing. I really don't think many of these situations deserve to be elevated to the level so many of them have been as I explain below.

    'And don't even begin to think that any real proof must be offered for the allegations. How is it that accusations wait 30 or 40 years?

    'In my opinion, it is a fiction that for a legitimate allegation, a victim of a priest (or any predator for that matter) hasn't been able to come to terms with the incident in his own mind so that he hasn't been able to move on with his life and that he must, decades later, pursue 'justice' in order to, what, straighten out his mind or maybe a warped personality? I think many people, giving due thought to this and applying it to other types of transgressions, would find it laughable. This brings to mind that bully in my neighborhood when I was ten.

    'It should be 'prosecute now' or forget it. After so many years, even if there was an actual incident, the perpetrator way well have had just one such indiscretion and has since changed his ways and is no danger to anyone. Should his life be ruined because of that? Do two wrongs make a right? I don't think so. I'm wondering if this might not be the rationale for a 'statute of limitations for certain crimes' rather than ruining the life of someone who is no threat to anyone, judging by the life they have lived in the intervening 30 or 40 years?

    'As for the 'ruined life' of the alleged or real victim, I don't buy it. The same mindset can be applied to all sorts of abusive crimes. But people get over it and move on unless there is another thing at work which really has nothing to do with justice but more with ego and maybe lucre.

    'The power of the state makes it easy to bring forth unsubstantiated allegations decades after an alleged event. So enabled, such power as provided by the state is wielded by many for their own agenda against persons who cannot defend themselves against such strength. What a travesty.'

Mike Malone:

    'This is crazy and disgraceful. Where else can someone be accused, tried and convicted before a hearing or any kind of defense. I have often wondered just how many lawyers and their clients have been enriched by phony allegations. Remember the famous quote laid out by Labor secretary Raymond Donovan in 1987 after being cleared of fraud charges? He said, 'Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?' Remember the accusations made by Tawana Brawley against six white police officers? False. Remember the false allegations made against the Duke Lacrosse team? This is pure 'horse apples.' When is the Church going to defend priests and get evidence that is beyond a reasonable doubt? I'll pray for this priest.'

Andy from New Mexico:

    'Your article really touches on a problem with the U.S. bishops' approach in dealing with those priests accused of pedophilia.

    'We have an old Franciscan priest in our area whom I know personally. Several years ago he was accused and an investigation showed the charges to be baseless. For the year or so it took for the investigation [to be completed], we had a fine priest and man who was not permitted to perform his ministry. Immediately after this, the same man made the same charges against this good priest and the priest was again suspended from his ministry while they conducted a second investigation. The absurdity of going through this onerous process a second time from which the second investigation found there were no grounds for the charges is not even worth saying.

    'The bishops in America need to come up with a better plan then to ostracize the priest who is accused simply because he was accused. These priests are treated as if they are guilty because they were accused. This is an injustice that needs to be corrected in policy.'



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