I stepped on a hornets’ nest last October when I wrote “The Whoopi Cushion” for These Stone Walls. It’s been there for all to see for five months, but last month it raised the ire of some devoted Michael Jackson fans who took umbrage with this comment I made about the late pop star:
“Despite being acquitted in a criminal trial, singer Michael Jackson settled a single claim of sexual abuse for a reported $20 million, and untold millions settled other claims against him. When Michael Jackson died, he was celebrated as a cultural icon of the entertainment industry.
In contrast, an American bishop, under pressure from a victims’ group, ordered the remains of a posthumously accused priest exhumed from a diocesan cemetery and reinterred elsewhere.”
My point was not that I thought Michael Jackson was guilty. It was that for many fans the claims and sett1ements did not destroy his name. He was acquitted at trial, so if there was any evidence at all a jury did not find it persuasive. Some people conclude that, despite acquittal, Michael Jackson’s multi-million dollar settlement of civil lawsuits was itself evidence of guilt.
I’ll get back to that point. Catherine Coy, a fan and advocate of Michael Jackson, sent a shot across my bow last month for suggesting any connection between settlements and credible accusations. I knew I was in for it when Ms. Coy began her message with “You, of all people …!” Actually, when Catherine Coy and I listened to each other, we came to a sort of detente if not agreement.
In a 2005 article, “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud” (Catalyst, Nov. 2005), I detailed the relationship between mediated settlements and claims against Catholic priests. Did Michael Jackson become vulnerable to the same media-generated cloud under which claims against priests were seen as “credible?”
Catherine Coy insisted that in spite of monetary settlements, Jackson has never had a “credible” claim of sexual abuse lodged against him. That statement might evoke a dismissive “Yeah, right!” in some corners, but not in mine.
Why did so many people presume the worst of Michael Jackson? It certainly wasn’t evidence. It’s more of a spontaneous response, and one that is very similar to what happens when priests are accused and maintain their innocence. Catherine Coy is right. I, of all people, should see the analogy instantly.
Last July, I published an article entitled “Due Process for Accused Priests” in Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights. The article began with a description of a phenomenon in psychology and marketing called “availability bias.”
It’s the human propensity to judge the validity of a proposition just by how easily it comes to mind. At about the same time the Catholic priesthood’s sex abuse scandal swept the nation in 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on analyzing how the media shapes the news instead of just reporting it, and also shapes our attitudes and beliefs.
As a result of availability bias, humans tend to replace their beliefs with the crowd’s beliefs simply because a proposition has been repeated in the media and presented as widely believed. We are subjected to subtle cues of social pressure every day in marketing that convince many people to purchase things they don’t really need. We also face subtle cues and social pressure in the daily bombardment of news stories that cause many people to believe something based solely on its prevalence in the media. It is indeed possible that Michael Jackson and many Catholic priests became the subjects of classic, media-fueled availability bias.
“There isn’t a person alive,” Catherine Coy wrote, “who could have withstood the onslaught of lies, innuendo and slander that was heaped on Jackson for well over 20 years.” On that score, I beg to differ, but I see her point. She urged me to review a website built by Michael Jackson advocates located at www.MJTruthNow.com.
I haven’t seen the site, of course. I haven’t even seen my own site, you might recall. But if truth, justice, and media responsibility are called for in this site, I applaud it. I can’t help but like the approach of Ms. Coy who wrote of her involvement with the site:
“My reaction to Michael’s torment is to work for media reform. Certainly, Satan runs the media. It now stands as judge and executioner – even if the judicial system works properly, as it did in Michael’s case – to override the sensibilities of jurors in the court of public opinion.”
The very association of Michael Jackson’s name with the bizarre proclivity attributed to him may in fact be the result of media bias and not evidence. There is no doubt in my mind that I and many other priests have faced this same phenomenon. With no personal experience of the behaviors attributed to some accused priests, many Catholics simply adopted the point of view given them by the news media.
This does not mean that all the claims of sexual abuse by priests are false. The U.S. Bishops commissioned a formal study of the matter conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. There were really two waves in the scandal. The first was the revelations that priests were accused at the time alleged abuse happened in the 1960’s to the 1980’s, and then were quietly moved around to other parishes. This was scandalous enough, and tragic.
The John Jay Report also revealed that a full seventy percent of the claims faced by bishops and dioceses in 2002 and following also alleged claims from the 1960’s to 1980’s, but those claims were not brought forward until 2002 when it became clear that Church institutions would settle because of the bludgeoning they took in the media.
Those claims were propelled by a widely held belief that it takes victims decades to realize they were abused and report it. Lots of people now believe that, and entire states have passed legislation to accommodate that belief. However, as demonstrated in “Due Process for Accused Priests,” the “delayed reporting” principle is classic availability bias.
DANIEL HENNINGER ON POP STARS AND PRIESTS
In June, 2005, Wall Street Journal Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Daniel Henninger wrote a most interesting commentary as Michael Jackson’s criminal trial got underway (“Pushing the Envelope – Michael Jackson: A Freaky Culture’s Peter Pan,” June 3, 2005). It was Daniel Henninger who first put into print what I hoped someone out there might grasp:
“[Prosecutor] Tom Sneddon may lose this case. If so, it will be because Mr. Jackson, like Kobe Bryant, was able to mount a defense equal to the accusatory powers of the state. Not everyone can do that. If Michael walks, I’ll wonder if any of the many convicted Catholic priests similarly charged were in fact innocent but found guilty because they couldn’t push back against the state’s relentless steamroller.”
I do not at all begrudge Michael Jackson’s having the means to mount a defense equal to the state’s prosecution of him. Whatever he spent defending himself, it was less than the state spent trying to put him in prison. At the same time, I thought Daniel Henninger’s comment about convicted priests was just and fair, but he missed an important point. I no longer have the letter, but I wrote to Mr. Henninger shortly after his editorial. This is the gist of what I wrote:
“As a priest without the means to push back in equal measure to Michael Jackson, I must point out some factors you overlooked:”
“Imagine how steeply uphill Michael Jackson’s battle would have been if twenty years passed between the alleged crime and the state’s prosecutorial steamroller rumbling into action for a trial. Imagine the state having to prove nothing while Michael Jackson’s defense tried in vain to prove that something alleged to have happened two decades earlier never happened at all.”
“Then imagine Michael Jackson struggling to proclaim his innocence while the institution he served denounced him and his attempts to defend himself, seeking only the path of least resistance to settle with his accusers and rid themselves of liability at the expense of due process.”
“Imagine all of this, and you will have captured the scene faced by many similarly accused Catholic priests.”
I could not help but think I may have been one of the priests Daniel Henninger referred to in his column. Just two months earlier, The Wall Street Journal published “A Priest’s Story” by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Dorothy Rabinowitz. The two-part analysis of my trial was the most exhaustive and honest treatment of the case against me to appear in the news media anywhere. And ninety percent of that story is still yet to be told.
The aftermath of those articles in April, 2005 was most interesting. The accusers in the case – anxious to talk to the news media before receiving settlements – suddenly had nothing to say. The prosecutor had nothing to say. The judge was quoted in a local news article saying, vaguely, that review is a positive thing. Then he took early retirement from the bench.
I expected an onslaught of defensive rhetoric from victims’ groups, prosecutors, and contingency lawyers, but it never came. The sole protest came from the most unexpected source. Father Edward Arsenault, my Bishop’s delegate and the man most involved in settlement negotiations in these cases, declared that I was found guilty in a court of law by a jury of my peers, and nothing else needed to be said. Father Arsenault denounced The Wall Street Journal and its writer as biased. Incredible!
Two years earlier, in confidential memos between Father Arsenault and my bishop – later published as part of a massive release of documents in 2003 – Fr. Arsenault questioned the fairness of my trial, cited errors that exposed the trial as unjust, and denounced as unfair the diocesan decision to leave me with a public defender for my only chance of appeal.
TRUTH AND THE CATHOLIC PRESS
At the end of August last year, I posted “Postcards from the Edges,” an analysis of how some in the news media have used the Catholic scandal for an agenda that has nothing to do with protecting children. The Catholic press is no exception.
It seemed most strange to me that the world’s largest secular newspaper published so openly against the tide – or tidal wave – of typical media coverage of claims against priests while most in the Catholic media remained silent. With the exception of Father Richard John Neuhaus in First Things and The Catholic League in Catalyst, the Catholic media – on both the left and the right – continues to remain silent about false claims against priests brought for money, or, worse, they have used the clergy scandal for some agenda of their own.
Writing in the March issue of The Nation, (“The Love We Lost”), JoAnn Wypijewski wrote that
“Ordinary rules of judgment have been suspended” in this sound-bite culture of news that shapes most peoples’ views on sex and the accused:
“[ I ] t cannot matter that Michael Jackson was acquitted of child molestation, since he was frequently remembered in death as a pedophile… just as it cannot matter whether others who plead guilty to a sex charge really did it, or whether evidence to convict was nonsense, or whether the guilty served their time. They can never ‘pay their debt to society.’ Guilt is the presumption, forever.”
JoAnn Wypijewski went on to describe the case of the priest convicted in a trial in which the sole “credible” evidence presented to the jury was the mere fact that he is a priest – that, and a claim of repressed and recovered memory, the legitimacy of which is always questioned when the accused is not a priest. In an all-too familiar twist, that priest’s bishop added his own sound bite by administratively laicizing the priest (“defrocking” in more Calvinist circles) just before the sham of a trial.
After what is quickly approaching $3 billion in total settlements nationwide, the matter of false claims is the elephant in the sacristy that no one wants to talk about. At the same time, the Catholic press devotes ample space to coverage of the ongoing barrage of claims against priests presenting case after case as “credible.”
Awhile back, writer Ryan A. MacDonald published an essay on These Stone Walls entitled “Truth in Justice.” I recommend reading it. Mr. MacDonald mentioned his essay recently to a prominent Catholic magazine editor. The editor’s response was rather circular. He spoke of his concern that I may be guilty because “I find it difficult to believe that a civil court – with no interest in the matter – would accept fraudulent evidence, or that such evidence would withstand the scrutiny of competent legal counsel.” It was suggested to the Catholic editor that he read my post, “The Eighth Commandment.” I hope he did.
The “credible” standard Catherine Coy applied to Michael Jackson is admirable and hopeful. Ms. Coy’s fair-minded attitude about Michael Jackson is the polar opposite of what is now applied to Catholic priests.
There is no mechanism whatsoever beyond preserved DNA or an admission of guilt that would serve as evidence that a priest accused from decades ago is guilty. There is no investigation technique that could determine the credibility of such claims. What makes most claims against priests “credible” is the fact that someone – not them – has paid money to an accuser. Nothing else. Catholics should take note of the efforts by Michael Jackson fans to revisit credibility despite financial settlements.
For my part, I can only remember the famous scene early in Michael’s trial during which he danced on the hood of an SUV outside the court to the wild cheers of fans.
Michael sure was a strange guy, but the dance gave me pause. Having been through such a trial, I know its oppression. That dance was surely the act of a delusional man …
… or perhaps an innocent one.