Pope Francis issued 2019 guidelines for preserving a right of defense for accused priests and limits on publishing their names. Many U.S. bishops just ignored these.
- Editor’s Note: The following guest post by Ryan A. MacDonald is an important sequel to his previous post, “In the Diocese of Manchester, Transparency and a Hit List.”
In the above-captioned article at These Stone Walls, I wrote about a decision of The Most Rev. Peter Libasci, Bishop of the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, to publish a list of the names of priests “credibly” accused in that state over the past fifty years. At the time the list was published in August 2019, the Bishop and Diocese issued a press release citing ‘transparency” as the reason for publishing it.
The list contained the names of 73 accused priests. More than half are deceased. Only five of the 73 ever had a case for prosecution before any New Hampshire court. None of the claims were current. Most alleged misconduct from three to five decades ago. Virtually all were brought with a financial demand that resulted in a monetary settlement from the diocese.
Bishop Peter Libasci’s published list was generated, not by any semblance of due process, but rather by a one-sided grand jury investigation of the diocese launched in 2002. That investigation treated all claims in civil lawsuits and other demands for settlement as demonstrably true with no standard of evidence whatsoever.
Bishop Libasci’s press release revealed that the claims against all 73 priests were determined to be “credible.” This is a standard that the United States bishops adopted at their Dallas meeting in 2002. “Credible,” as the bishops are applying it, means only “possible.” If it could have happened, it’s credible.
A 2003 grand jury investigation of the Diocese was the source for the recently published list. In that investigation, none of the accused – the few who were still living, anyway – were permitted to appear to offer any defense. That is the nature of a grand jury investigation. It is a strictly prosecutorial affair that is supposed to determine whether indictments and trials should follow. None of the subjects on Bishop Libasci’s list were indicted after the 2003 grand jury report became public.
My article cited above was followed by a related and stunning article by Fr. Gordon MacRae, one of the priests whose name appears on the bishop’s list. His category was unique on the list. It was simply, “convicted.” It was published without nuance by a diocese whose previous bishop told others in secret that he knows Father MacRae to be innocent and unjustly imprisoned. “Transparency,” however, has its limits.
Father MacRae’s article is “A Grand Jury, St. Paul’s School, and the Diocese of Manchester.” Amazingly, from reports I have seen generated by These Stone Walls, the article was heavily read around the world, most notably in Washington D.C., at the Holy See, and throughout Rome. In New Hampshire, it was the most-read article of the year at These Stone Walls.
My article, “In the Diocese of Manchester, Transparency and a Hit List,” focused on injustices behind the scenes in a decision of the Bishop and Diocese to publish that list anew. Father MacRae’s remarkable sequel contrasts the 2003 grand jury investigation of his Diocese with a similar 2018 investigation of a nationally known Concord, New Hampshire academy, St. Paul’s School, with historic ties to the Episcopal church. Fr. MacRae brought to light a judicial ruling that publishing these grand jury reports – and by extension the Bishop’s list of names – is actually forbidden under New Hampshire law.
GRAVE INJUSTICE IN THE ‘LIVE FREE OR DIE’ STATE
Father MacRae’s article revealed a grave injustice in the Diocese of Manchester and multiple other U.S. dioceses. Fifteen years after the Diocese and Attorney General signed a deal in secret to publish a grand jury report in 2003, New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara ruled that the report, and one involving a 2018 St Paul’s School grand jury investigation, cannot legally be published.
New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald pressed to allow publication of the St. Paul’s School report. He cited the 2003 Diocese of Manchester precedent in which a report and files were published – the source for the names on Bishop Libasci’s list.
Father MacRae revealed that in 2003, the current N.H. Attorney General was part of a legal team representing the Diocese when release of the report was agreed upon in secret. It was the Attorney General’s citing the precedent that triggered Judge McNamara’s 23-page Order dated August 12, 2019, ten days after Bishop Libasci published his list.
Given the various one-sided grand jury investigations of Catholic dioceses across the U.S., Judge McNamara’s Court Order should give Catholics pause. The judicial findings summarized below cast doubt on the U.S. bishops’ collective decisions to publish lists of names arising from grand jury investigations:
- The OAG [Office of the Attorney General] argues that a common law precedent for such a report does in fact exist because the Hillsborough County [NH] Superior Court [in 2003] authorized an agreement between the OAG and the Diocese of Manchester to waive the secrecy of a grand jury investigation…
- The Hillsborough County Superior Court endorsed the Diocese-OAG Agreement without explanation and without any written Order. This Court respectfully disagrees with the decision to approve the Diocese-OAG Agreement [in 2003].
- The Diocese-OAG Agreement fulfilled none of the traditional purposes of the common law grand jury.
- The Court cannot find that the use of grand jury materials and the breach of grand jury secrecy in order to prepare a report is a practice authorized by New Hampshire common law.
- Rather than investigation of crime, the report is a post hoc summary of information the grand jury considered, but did not indict on. It did not protect the privacy interests of those witnesses and subjects that were never charged with a crime by the grand jury.
- The deficiency of the Diocese-OAG Agreement is cast in bold relief by [a] December 2018 decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Pennsylvania has a statute that specifically authorizes investigative grand juries and investigative reports. However, as in most states, the statute contains statutory procedures to provide individuals with due process protections for their reputational rights… the petitioners were entitled to have a report published with redactions of their names in order to protect their right to reputation. [emphasis added]
- A grand jury is not an adversary hearing in which guilt or innocence is established. Rather, it is an ex parte investigation to determine whether a crime has been committed and whether criminal proceedings should be instituted against any person.
- Grand jury testimony can involve all sorts of false, damaging, and one-sided information and New Hampshire has no historical or legal basis for releasing such information.
- An allegation of wrongdoing or impropriety, based on half-truths, illegally seized evidence, or rumor, innuendo or hearsay may blight a person’s life indefinitely.
- Mark Twain famously said that a lie is half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. In an internet age, he might have added that the lie will forever outrun the truth as search engines become more efficient.
- Accordingly, the Court DENIES the OAG Motion to Produce and Disclose. The OAG may not produce any report that contains any material characterized as a “Grand Jury Report.”
NOW COMES THE POPE
The Court Order should have applied to the Bishop of Manchester as well. He took it upon himself to do what the law forbids the State to do: to prosecute and convict in the public square those who were not indicted, were not tried or convicted, but were merely accused. I find it a disturbing coincidence that Bishop Peter Libasci’s decision to publish a list of the names of 73 accused priests – the vast majority of whom are merely accused – took place just days before the Order by Judge McNamara was issued.
This is ironic, at best, and at worst highly suspect. Had the Order preceded the release of names, the priests involved – those still living, anyway – may have had legal standing to challenge it. But this all pales next to published guidelines of another authority the bishops should be heeding.
On November 12, 2019, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. His address emphasized that “The pastoral thrust of this pontificate must reach the American people.” The bishops can fulfill this, he said, with “tangible signs of their communion with the Holy Father.”
Among the “pastoral thrusts” of the pontificate of Pope Francis that might require communion with his bishops was a February 21, 2019 issuance of a set of guidelines that bishops should follow on how allegations of sexual abuse by priests are to be handled. The list included 21 points that Pope Francis asked the bishops to observe. Point Number 14 is as follows:
. “The right to defense: the principle of natural and canon law of a presumption of innocence must also be safeguarded until the guilt of the accused is proven. Therefore, it is necessary to prevent the lists of the accused being published, even by dioceses, before the preliminary investigation and a definitive condemnation.” (Source: Guidelines of Pope Francis, February 19, 2019)
Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino, Professor of Systematic Theology and a prolific author, has published what I consider to be a landmark article entitled “The Dark Side of the Dallas Charter”
(First Things, October 2, 2019) . Father Guarino characterized the 2002 Dallas Charter – the operable document under which accused priests are removed from all ministry:
. “The harried bishops, with their Dallas Charter of 2002… passed Draconian norms that come close to venturing beyond Catholic teaching. The American bishops decreed ‘zero tolerance’ for priests accused of sexual abuse, a norm that, as Cardinal Avery Dulles acknowledged in 2002, violates equitable treatment for priests. Dulles added, ‘Having been so severely criticized for exercising poor judgment in the past, the bishops apparently wanted to avoid making any judgments in these cases’.”
Father Guarino’s article points out that Pope Francis has been reluctant to invoke the term “zero-tolerance.” The Wall Street Journal reported that of the twenty countries in the world with the largest Catholic populations, only the Bishops of the United States have invoked a policy of “zero tolerance.”
In 2000, the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral document critical of the American criminal justice system. The bishops rejected terms such as “zero tolerance” and “three-strikes” in the application of punishments in the criminal justice system. They urged lawmakers to focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice while imposing sentences.
But two years later, at Dallas in 2002, under the harsh glare of the news media and victim advocates such as S.N.A.P. (who were directly invited by the bishops) the U.S. bishops inflicted the same panic-driven one-size-fits-all policy on their priests that they asked the justice system NOT to inflict on all other U.S. citizens. Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote in rebuttal in 2004:
- “The Church must protect the community from harm, but it must also protect the human rights of each individual who may face an accusation… Some of the measures adopted [at Dallas] went far beyond the protection of children… [Bishops] undermined the morale of their priests and inflicted a serious blow to the credibility of the Church as a mirror of justice.” (Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Rights of Accused Priests,” America 2004)
THE DARK SIDE OF THE DALLAS CHARTER
As Father Gordon MacRae exposed in “A Grand Jury, St. Paul’s School, and the Diocese of Manchester,” the late Father Richard John Neuhaus interviewed an American prelate who was one of the unnamed principle architects of the U.S. Bishops’ Dallas Charter. Father Neuhaus quoted him in a First Things article: “It may be necessary for some innocent priests to suffer for the good of the Church.” That prelate, according to Father MacRae, was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
As Father Guarino points out in “The Dark Side of the Dallas Charter,” a significant problem with the Bishops’ policy is that most accused priests have not actually been found guilty of abuse. Of the 73 priests, both living and deceased, on Bishop Peter Libasci’s published list, only five ever had due process in any court of law. Three of those were by plea deals, and one, as Bishop Libasci’s predecessor has acknowledged in secret, is wrongfully convicted.
For all the other names on the Diocese of Manchester list – and for the vast majority of the hundreds of American priests who have been removed from ministry, the allegations against them were only considered “credible,” meaning only that it is possible that they happened. If any other American citizens from any walk of life were subjected to such a standard before being shamed in the public square, libel and slander lawsuits would flood the courts.
Perhaps the greatest insult to Catholics in the pews is the statement of Bishop Libasci – and other bishops who have published lists of names of the accused – that this is done for the purpose of “transparency.” I have personally attempted to review the required canonical investigations of Father MacRae that a previous official of the Diocese of Manchester insisted were carried out.
I was told that these investigations are confidential.
I have requested to see the list of settlements meted out to the accusers in his case which have been called into question by The Wall Street Journal and other interested parties. I was told that these settlements are confidential.
Father MacRae himself requested of a previous bishop, the Most Rev. John McCormack, that he be permitted to see the canonical investigation that the bishop claimed was forwarded to the Holy See. Father MacRae was reportedly told that this, too, is confidential. He was later told by another official of the Diocese that no required canonical investigation ever took place. This was before MacRae learned from a New Hampshire attorney and a PBS producer that Bishop McCormack revealed, after requesting secrecy, that “I firmly believe Father MacRae is innocent and should not be in prison.”
“Zero Tolerance” is an insult to Catholic theology and to our priests who are disenfranchised from their priesthood, and from their civil rights as citizens, on the whim of a bishop after being accused.
“Transparency,” however, is an insult to all the rest of us who have waited under shrouds of duplicity for our bishops to reflect the mirror of justice that this world needs the Church to be.
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Editor’s Note: Please share this important post with the priests and Catholic laity you know. You are also invited to Subscribe to These Stone Walls and to Follow on Facebook some inspiring related graphic presentations of these posts.
You may learn more on the story of Catholic priests falsely accused from related articles by Ryan A. MacDonald:
- Justice & a Priest’s Right of Defense in the Diocese of Manchester
- #MeToo & #HimToo: Jonathan Grover & Father Gordon MacRae
- The Story Buried Under the Father Gordon MacRae Case
- A Grievous Error in Judge Joseph Laplante’s Court
You are invited to watch the rare documentary interview with Father Gordon MacRae. Please note that the sound doesn’t begin until the 0’32” second mark.