Sixteen years after the Dallas Charter set a ‘credible’ standard to suspend hundreds of accused priests, bishops are only now trying to define what ‘credible’ means.
“‘Credibly accused’ is being worked out in terms of our lawyers even now as we speak.” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President, U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
I chose the image atop this post because it presents such a startling contrast. The untitled and uncredited image was sent and I was so moved by it I asked to have it posted on Christmas Eve on LinkedIn, an entirely secular social network. If a picture speaks a thousand words, this one speaks volumes. Within days, it garnered 3,000 views and a multitude of comments. Readers found it to be remarkably inspiring.
I wanted to include it here because it reflects the reality in which I live. It also reflects the true mission of priesthood, “a heroic vocation” as described by Matthew Hennessey, an editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal, who wrote in 2017 that, despite all the bad press…
“One thing hasn’t changed. Young men still want lives, of heroic virtue and the priesthood offers that in abundance.” (“The Priesthood is a Heroic Vocation,” August 17, 2017)
Both the photo above and Matthew Hennessey’s WSJ op-ed stand in stark contrast to how most in the news media – often predators in their own right – are portraying Catholic priests. A typical example was analyzed in these pages in a post about the one-sided hysteria masked as journalism that has dogged Catholic leaders in the sexual abuse moral panic of the last two decades. That post is “USA Today’s Tim Roemer on How to Save the Catholic Church.”
I owe some thanks to USA Today and former Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer for at least being transparent in their real agenda for Catholics in America. Their moral outrage has goals: abandon civil rights for priests, allow priests to marry, ordain women, and appoint lay leaders to replace bishops in supervising clergy and screening seminarians. In other words, make bishops obsolete.
But nothing Tim Roemer has said or written alarms me as much as the quote atop this post from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Gospel could be the measure of how the bishops respond to the crisis. Church law could provide a framework for formulating policy. Bypassing all of that for the U.S. bishops, “Credibly accused is being worked out in terms of our lawyers even now as we speak.”
“Even now as we speak.” Sixteen years after adopting “credible” as the standard by which accused priests – “from however long ago” – are measured and discarded, the bishops are only now discerning what “credible” should mean, and only because there is a movement afoot to apply the same standard to bishops. A little history is in order.
In 2002, the bishops meeting in Dallas under the harsh glare of the news media adopted a policy in a time of crisis. Having invited David Clohessy, Barbara Blane and others from SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) to address the conference, the bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
Known simply as the “Dallas Charter,” its main promoter was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick Cardinal Avery Dulles lobbied against it, and published a stinging rebuke in “The Rights of Accused Priests.” The bishops, however, sided with Cardinal McCarrick.
ZERO TOLERANCE IS NOT A GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
In 2000, the U S bishops published a pastoral document entitled “Responsibility and Rehabilitation.” It criticized the American criminal justice system for adopting one-size-fits-all concepts of justice and mantra-based policies such as “zero tolerance” and “three strikes and you’re out” that enhanced penalties while discounting paths to rehabilitation. The bishops urged that justice should be restorative, and not only punitive.
Just two years later, those same bishops signed the Dallas Charter inflicting upon their own priests what they condemned in the criminal justice system. The bishops’s draconian new policy for priests negated restorative justice. “One strike and you’re out – forever!” Among those paying attention, even hardcore law and order types scratched their heads at the abolition of due process by which this would be implemented.
An accusation – whether from this year or fifty years ago – need not be proven or even true. It need only be ‘credible.” The accepted interpretation of “credible” was that it could have happened. In other words, the priest and the accuser were both present in the same general locale 30, 40, or 50 years ago. This new zero-tolerance policy held that any priest so accused, from however long ago, is to be removed and barred from any ministry unless and until proven to be innocent.
The cases, many of which skipped the preliminary investigations required by canon law, were then submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican for finality. The CDF had every reason to conclude that canon law was being followed and legitimate investigations were carried out. Writing in First Things (Aug.-Sept. 2002) Father Richard John Neuhaus described the scene in which the “Dallas Charter” was created:
“Almost 300 bishops sat in mandatory docility as they were sternly reproached by knowing psychologists, angry spokespersons for millions of presumably angrier laypeople, and above all, by those whom the bishops learned to call, with almost cringing deference, the ‘victim/survivors’… Tears earned a gold star and welling eyes an honorable mention from the media… Like schoolboys, the bishops anxiously awaited the evening news to find out their grades.” (“Scandal Time III”)
The resultant process was described in these pages in a courageous post by priest and canon lawyer, Father Stuart MacDonald, JCL, “Last Rights: Canon Law in a Mirror of Justice Cracked.” It was a timely and soul-searching post for the whole Church about the rights of accused priests and the real-world failure of the hierarchy to secure and respect those rights.
Since the Dallas Charter was enacted by the bishops in 2002, that “real-world failure” has resulted in scenes far more reminiscent of the American McCarthy era than the American Catholic church. In the months to follow that Dallas meeting, thousands of files were scoured and hundreds of priests were rounded up. Priests merely accused, many of whom had ministered without incident for years or decades, were summarily expelled from Church ministry and property. Again, Father Neuhaus:
“The bishops have succeeded in scandalizing the faithful new by adopting a thoroughly unbiblical, untraditional, unCatholic approach to sin and grace… They ended up adopting a policy that was sans repentance, sans conversion, sans forbearance, sans prudential judgment, sans forgiveness, sans almost everything one might have hoped for from the bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ.” (The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, “Scandal Time III,” 2002)
WHEN THE CHURCH DEFAMES HER PRIESTS
Back in July of 2011 I wrote with exasperation about the result of all this by profiling the case of Boston priest, Father F. Dominic Menna. “Father Dom” ministered as a senior priest well into his late seventies in a parish where he was beloved and respected. Then the 2002 moral panic came. An easy target, Father Menna found himself among dozens to face a vague claim from the distant past, an incident alleged to have occurred over forty years earlier.
It was unsubstantiated and could never be substantiated. By what magic could a 40-year-old claim of fondling be substantiated? But it “could” have happened, and that rendered it “credible.” Father Dom was dragged before the Archdiocesan Sanhedrin, stripped of his faculties as a priest, and put out into the street. The next day, The Boston Globe ran his name and photo and identified the vague details of his “offense” forgetting to mention that it was both unproven and up to a half-century old.
Of course the purpose of all that is to invite new accusers to cash in. This claim came through the usual contingency lawyers who became quick millionaires by holding press conferences to shame bishops into quick settlements. I wrote about the sad Father Dom story in 2011 in, “If Night Befalls Your Father, You Don’t Discard Him. You Just Don’t!”
Ah, but we do discard them! Or at least most of us keep silent while someone else does. This is the “zero tolerance” that our bishops have embraced and that even Pope Francis now touts as a centerpiece of the Church’s response. So why am I protesting all this anew? In a December 19 issue of CRUX, Correspondent Christopher White published “Two Decades into Crisis, No Consensus on What ‘Credibly Accused’ Means.”
After sixteen years of compiling scarlet letter lists of the accused – some living, but most dead, some guilty but many not – the question has arisen anew about whether names of accused priests – merely accused, mind you – should be published by their bishops. The demand to do so comes from lawyers, the news media, and SNAP, but as Father Richard John Neuhaus warned in 2002, the “victim advocates are not satisfied and, sadly, may never be satisfied.”
It is not enough that the bishops release these lists of names. The newest wave of SNAP leaders (the previous wave disappeared after being implicated in an alleged lawyer kickback scheme) want the bishops to also include in these lists descriptions of the alleged abuse so that others who want to contact the same contingency lawyers can concoct consistent stories. If you balk at the plausibility of such a concern, it is only because you have not yet read the evidence for it in “A Weapon of Mass Destruction: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused.”
But there are other concerns, the most important of which is fundamental civil liberty and due process. After fallout from the now infamous Pennsylvania grand jury report on accused priests, bishops in multiple states have conceded on the issue of publishing the names of the “credibly” accused, living or dead, guilty or not. This has been going on for years, but now, the sound of screeching voices has risen to a scarlet letter crescendo.
TAKING RIGHTS FROM SOME DESCENDS A SLIPPERY SLOPE
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo told CRUX that among the next steps in the bishops’ collective response to the crisis would be “studying national guidelines for the publication of lists of names of those clerics facing substantiated claims of abuse.”
It did not go without notice among the lawyers, the news media, and SNAP that the parameter has suddenly been altered. After two decades with “credible” as the standard for dismissing priests and releasing their names, “substantiated” is now the operative word and it is a far different standard. Why it took the bishops nearly two decades to ask themselves what “credible” means – not to mention whether it ever reflected justice or the Gospel – is unclear. A lot is unclear.
But some clarity on this came forth from another source “When the Church Defames Her Priests” was published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review in 2017 by Opus Bono founder and president, Joe Maher, and David A. Shaneyfelt, an attorney in private practice in California and an Opus Bono adviser.
The article addresses the destructive and ill-advised practice adopted to date by some two dozen dioceses in the United States to create and publish lists of priests who have been merely accused. The Opus Bono authors wrote:
“We take special issue with those dioceses who think that publishing a list of names of clerics who have been ‘credibly’ accused of sexual misconduct is warranted. We disagree for many reasons – canonical, theological, pastoral, and legal. It is this latter reason we wish to address here.”
The article goes on to present a transparent but chilling explanation of what “credible” means in this context, and a compelling case for protecting the due process rights of priests who are merely accused. After reading, I could not help but agree with its urgency. The article captured the flagrant injustice in this practice:
“How ironic that a bishop, who aims to demonstrate his concern for one victim of abuse, will thereby create another victim of abuse – and end up paying large amounts of damages to each in the process. How doubly ironic that a bishop who initiates such a policy may someday find himself on the list.”
Lest any bishop thought that suggestion implausible, it has now come to pass. In “Giving Due Process Its Due,” an excellent article at The Catholic Thing, Stephen P. White (no relation to CRUX writer, Christopher White) wrote that at the November meeting of bishops, Bishop Donald Trautman (Emeritus of Erie, PA), spoke against plans to have a similar reporting system for allegations against bishops.
In response to the idea that allegations against bishops be reported to the Nuncio, and thus to Rome, Bishop Trautman objected: “I think this proposal is very dangerous and unjust. It calls for the reporting to the Apostolic Nunciature accusations not investigated, not substantiated, not proven. That’s unjust.”
I agree with Bishop Trautman, however, as Stephen White reported, it raised a few eyebrows among bishops for it is precisely what US bishops have been doing to hundreds of priests since the Dallas Charter was enacted in 2002.
The growing demand – to which the bishops of some seventy U.S. dioceses have already capitulated – is to bypass the legal system standard of a criminal conviction as the impetus for requiring registration of sexual offenders. Some bishops have created their own private version of “Megan’s Law,” but without the law’s built-in respect for basic civil rights. In American courts, only those convicted in a court of law can end up on such a published list.
Dozens of U.S. bishops and dioceses have already published these lists with no legal entity requiring them, and with little recourse on the part of the priests, many of whom are innocent. These lists replace justice with capitulation to a lynch mob.
The November-December issue of Annals Australasia: Journal of Catholic Culture reprinted the following excerpt, an eye-opener from Peter Hitchins in the (UK) Daily Mail, 17 December 2017, entitled “We have forgotten what justice means”:
“Accusations of long-ago sexual crime have become a sort of industry in this country. People are so horrified by them that they almost always believe them. Because the crime is so foul, we stop thinking…. Police and prosecutors use our horror to get easy convictions when they must know that their cases are weak. The less actual evidence that they have, the more they stress the disgusting nature of the alleged crime. And they forget to remind us that it is alleged, not proved.
“Equally shamefully, judges do not stop these trials, and juries leave their brains at the door. They convict not because they are sure the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt, but because they are angry and revolted. I am miserably sure there are disturbing numbers of people in prisons now, prosecuted on such charges, who are innocent of the accusations against them. It is our fault, because we have forgotten what justice is supposed to be like, and that, if we do not guard it in our hearts, it will perish in our country.”
If Pennsylvania Attorney General Joshua Shapiro’s one-sided, untested grand jury report is to be the standard by which we execute justice and formulate policy – without evidence, without trials, without a defense – then justice has already perished in our country. If our bishops publish lists of names of priests merely accused, but without substantiation, their credibility will perish with it.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this important post and visit these related posts from These Stone Walls:
- Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the Homosexual Matrix
- That Grand Jury Report on Abusive Catholic Priests
- Last Rights: Canon Law in a Mirror of Justice Cracked