Jesus issued a challenge to cast the first stone in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It’s a fitting backdrop to the news media stoning of Catholic priests.
“Those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the earth.” (Jeremiah 17:13)
In “Forty Days of Lent in a Church Wandering in the Desert,” I wrote that I would try to venture through Lent while taking a break from Catholic scandal – which these days never seems to take a break at all. However since then, I have been asked by many readers to lend some much-needed perspective to what has become “the story that never goes away.” This sexually obsessed culture in which we live holds celibacy and Catholic priests in harsh contempt. Some of it is justified. Most of it is not.
That’s where perspective comes in, and I’ll get back to that. The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the story of the Adulterous. Woman (John 8: 1-11). In the account, some Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They pointed out to him that the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy ‘22:22 and Ezekiel 16:40) prescribed that such a sinner should be stoned to death.
But the poor woman was not really the target of the Pharisees’ challenge. Their agenda was to lay a trap for Jesus, according to the well-known Gospel account, “so that they might bring some charge against him.” They used the incident to catch Jesus in what they thought was a classic “Catch-22,” Though the term did not exist in the time of this Gospel account, it describes well the trap in which they thought they had caught him.
The Law of Moses required that the woman be stoned to death while the law of Rome (see John 18:31) forbade Jews from executing Jews who violate their laws. The Pharisees knew that no matter how Jesus answered, they had a charge to bring against him either to the Sanhedrin or to Pontius Pilate.
Instead of responding directly, however, Jesus bent down and mysteriously began to write with his finger on the ground. Then he stood and challenged the crowd: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8 7) It was a risky thing to say to a self-righteous mob. Then he bent down again and continued to write in the dirt.
In the Hebrew Scriptures can be found a possible source for the mystery of what Jesus was writing It is quoted from the Prophet Jeremiah atop this post The rest of the story is fascinating, but I have already written about it in one of the most-read posts on These Stone Walls “Casting the First Stone What Jesus Wrote in the Sand.” It is the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent so we will link to it again at the end of this post.
I want to thank Australian Attorney Malcolm Farr for his clear and compelling post, “For Cardinal George Pell, Justice Descends Down Under.” It came as a painful shock to the global Catholic Church when a jury in Australia convicted Cardinal Pell after a jury in a first trial voted ten-to-two for acquittal On social media, commentators with agendas of their own celebrated the verdict. Organized “survivors” cheered like the mob at Calvary.
If the Australian justice system has no wrongful convictions in its wake, it would be unique on the world stage. In the United States – which claims the fairest justice system in the world – thousands of wrongfully convicted persons spent years or decades in prison before being exonerated when newly discovered evidence proved their innocence. As I type this, I just read a commentary in the Concord Monitor by John Brandte (March 20, 2019):
“I am against capital punishment. For a long time, I was not But going to law school changed my mind The reason is that it is a well-known fact, at least in legal circles, that not everyone who has been convicted of a crime… is actually guilty. A quick Google search will show this is very true.”
In so-called “historic cases,” a whitewashed term for the tyranny of facing a charge long after any evidence could exist, there is no evidence at all to test or re-test. Cardinal Pell’s conviction comes under a category that I call “Trophy Justice.” The term speaks for itself, and it is not a result of evidence It is a result of prejudice.
In 2002, just as the last wave of Catholic clergy sex abuse claims was reaching the status of a media tsunami, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work on a phenomenon in psychology, marketing, and media called “availability bias Dr. Kahneman demonstrated the human tendency to believe a proposition as true merely by how easily it comes to mind due to repetition in the media.
Media coverage of the crisis in the priesthood is a prime example of Availability Bias. In an eye-opening article at Life Site News, reporter Doug Nainwaring analyzed a report by Vatican expert and Canon Lawyer, Mauro Visigalli. I strongly recommend this to every Catholic. The article is entitled, “Vatican Canonist Outlines a Path to Deal with the ‘Shameful Plague’ of Clergy Sexual Abuse.”
A substantial aspect of that “shameful plague” has been the availability bias created, not by facts that demonstrate truth, but by sheer repetition in the media:
“Visigalli warns that the collective hysteria about abusive priests has created an environment where ‘priest = sexual abuser’ is a commonly accepted equation You cannot serve both public opinion and justice.”
THE MEASURE WITH WHICH YOU MEASURE (Luke 6:38)
Adding enormous fuel to this raging media fire was the Grand Jury Report issued in 2018 by the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Some very important perspective was brought to that story in these pages by Father Peter M.J. Stravinskas entitled, “The Report Heard Round the World.”
In a bullet list of facts and figures, Father Stravinskas took the spotlight on abuse used to bludgeon the Church and priesthood, and turned it into a floodlight on the reality of abuse itself in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It turned out that the now infamous Grand Jury Report singled out 320 Catholic priests, nearly half of them deceased, in claims going all the way back to World War II, but they represented only a tiny fraction of the problem of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.
That needs to sink in a bit, and needs some perspective of its own. If you have not yet read the statistical analysis by Father Stravinskas, I urge you to do so, and to share it with others. The wider picture does not excuse or exonerate priests who were in fact guilty of abuse, but it does bring serious questions to the methodology used to conclude that the Catholic Church had become some sort of special locus of abuse. The news media created that availability bias, but it is simply untrue.
Then there is the question of what the Church must do in response to real and substantiated cases in which priests have offended against minors or anyone else under their pastoral care. I believe strongly that we must use “substantiated” as a standard instead of “credible” in any assessment of allegations against priests, especially in the vast majority of such claims that are brought after the passage of 30 or 40 years or more.
The revelations of priestly scandal, and the news media and social media coverage of them, have spawned many examples of availability bias. One of these is a claim that the statute of limitations to bring a lawsuit for damages resulting from abuse should be extended because victims of abuse are often unable to come to terms with it and report it until decades later.
There are multiple problems with this The first and most glaring is that the trend in most states that have allowed this “window legislation” – usually a one-year period in which lawsuits making expired claims can be filed – targets only the Catholic Church. Shielded from liability are the vastly greater numbers of claims in public schools.
The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report condemned the Church for allegations against 320 Catholic priests over a 70-year period, most of which have not been substantiated According to the report by Father Stravinskas linked above, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services received 44,000 reports of child abuse in 2016 alone. That amounts to 320 claims every three days, the same number of accused Catholic priests over 70 years.
Clearly, Catholic priests represent only a tiny fraction of our collective cultural problem of sexual misconduct The bogeyman is not in the Sacristy. He is in our neighborhoods and schools. Summon the courage to read “Pornchai Moontri: Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night” to see how very dark the night can be.
If you are reading this, and you are familiar with our “About” page, then you may know that I am serving a prison sentence for sexual abuse alleged to have occurred 36 years ago, but in reality never occurred at all According to experts in the legal field of wrongful convictions, I am but one of the thousands of Americans in prison for crimes they did not commit.
THE CELIBATE PRIESTHOOD
In the prison system where I live, there are currently about 3,000 prisoners According to state estimates, slightly over forty percent are in prison for sexual offenses. That represents 1,200 convicted sexual offenders in this one state prison. Among that 1,200, I am the only Catholic priest The rest are fathers, grandfathers, foster fathers, step fathers, uncles, teachers, ministers, scout masters – even former police officers and social workers – all serving prison sentences for sexual abuse.
Of the many thousands of former prisoners who have served their prison sentences and are now living in New Hampshire, some 3,000 more are listed with the state as registered sexual offenders They are living in the various communities of this state as private citizens, neighbors, and employees. Only one among those 3,000 is a Catholic priest who, as a result of his substantiated abuse, was removed from the clerical state.
The math is not too complicated When you combine those who are currently in prison with the former offenders who are not, but have been required to register as sexual offenders under state supervision, two individuals out of 4,200 are Catholic priests Catholic priests represent less than five-one-hundredths-of-onepercent of those convicted of sexual abuse in this state.
And for all other cases – literally for all of the convicted fathers, grandfathers, step-fathers, uncles, teachers, ministers etc – the victims of their offenses came forward to report them days or weeks, sometimes months, after they occurred. In a few cases they waited a year or two. It is extremely rare that they wait decades. Only Catholic priests face the tyranny of decades old claims brought long after there could be any evidence to substantiate them.
The national picture in the United States is no different. Estimates indicate that there are close to one-million U.S. citizens on state and federal sex-offender registries. The fraction that are, or were, Catholic priests is so miniscule that statistically it does not even register at all.
The vast majority of those convicted of sexual abuse both in this state and throughout the nation have been married men The often-repeated suggestion from Church “reformers” that a married priesthood would solve this problem just doesn’t have any evidence to support it The problem of priests who actually commit abuse is no greater – and may even be substantially lesser – than the much wider problem in our culture.
But the problem of priests accused is different from the problem of priests who actually commit these offenses A full seventy percent of the claims brought against Catholic priests are from decades past, are brought with no evidence or even a possibility of substantiation, and are framed by the reality that Church leaders have established a practice of mediated financial settlements for anything deemed credible.
And what they mean by “credible” is merely a standard that a claim from 30 or 40 years ago only “could” have happened I was dismayed just weeks ago to see a vivid example in a respected Catholic newsweekly, Our Sunday Visitor with the glaring headline declaring that many bishops and dioceses have released lists of names of hundreds of “credibly” accused priests – merely accused, mind you, and with no substantiation The OSV scare headline went on to ask, “Is it Enough?”
Is it enough for what? To satisfy justice? To satisfy media bloodlust against Catholic priests? I say it is enough only to demonstrate the courageous point made by David F Pierre, Jr., moderator of TheMediaReport.com, in “Catholic Media Join the Sex-Abuse Pile-On.” To its great credit, the National Catholic Register made that TSW guest post a featured post on its media blog, The Big Pulpit, which now partners with The Catholic Herald (U.K.).
The fact that bishops release names of “credibly” accused priests is akin to having their own private sex offender registry without the usual trials and convictions. The only consolation that these bishops might have in the latter is that dead priests cannot sue them, and elderly priests likely won’t.
I am giving my fellow prisoners the last word in this. Many of them have expressed to me their shock and alarm that Church leaders and critical Catholics have so naively allowed their priests to become prey for false claims brought by con artists and feigned “victims” using the cover of this “never question a victim” culture to pocket windfall settlements. I cited what I hear from these prisoners in my Catalyst article, “Due Process for Accused Priests”:
“Yet another example of availability bias is the widely-held belief that no one would claim to have been sexually abused just for money – not even for lots of money, and not even when few questions are asked. Remembering the shocking false claims for compensation after the 9/11 attacks, I put the proposition to my fellow prisoners. Do they agree that no one would falsely accuse a Catholic priest just for money?
“The question alone generated a good laugh, and then a sober reminder that some of the men around me here have taken lives for far less money than what was gained by those who took my reputation and freedom.”
Editor’s Note: This is a perspective Catholics need. Please share this post on Facebook and other social media and with your contacts. You may also like these related posts from Father Gordon MacRae and These Stone Walls:
- Casting the First Stone: What Jesus Wrote in the Sand
- Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas on ‘The Report Heard Round the World’
- Catholic Scandal and the Third Reich: Rise and Fall of a Moral Panic
- Cardinal George Pell and Other Martyrs for a Nefarious Cause