Forgive me if it takes a moment or two to work your way around the full meaning of my title for this post. In “My New Year’s Resolution About Gossip” two weeks ago, I wrote that a part of my resolve was to practice “truth in justice.” A reader asked me what exactly I meant by that, but the response isn’t simple. I meant it in two directions. Practicing truth in justice means withholding news and opinions that further an agenda of my own, but may not be entirely accurate or the entire truth.
We’ve all done this, and I am no exception. Sometimes we delude ourselves into believing that our own ends justify the means, including some subtle distortions of the truth to cast friends or foes in a specific light. Sometimes a writer knowingly employs the phenomenon of “availability bias” that I described in my post, “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” In the news media, “truth” is often just the limit of whatever amount of spin people will swallow without question.
But truth in justice also means putting the truth into public view for its own sake, without political spin, and without revealing only partial truths. Sometimes there’s a price to be paid for doing so, and sometimes people aren’t quite ready to hear the entire truth about everything. Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, found himself in a quagmire when he decided for us all that governments and institutions should have no secrets and no privacy. Not even the Vatican escaped the Wikileaks grand outing, as John Norton recently described in Our Sunday Visitor (“Wikileaks: Secret cables reveal communication on Vatican,” OSV, Dec. 26).
If you read my post, “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming” in November, you might recall my description of how the newest and most prolific wave of the Catholic abuse scandal in America arose in Boston and spread throughout the country in the weeks following the awful events of September 11, 2001. It was as though our entire culture faced two parallel and simultaneous assaults – one from suspected religious terrorists from without, and the other from once respected religious figures from within. And as I wrote in that post, I believe the latter was seen with the colored glasses and exposed nerves brought on by the former.
“RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES!”
Here’s an example of what I mean, then, when truth in justice is lacking from the picture that has been placed into public view:
At the height Of the most sordid revelations of the Catholic sex abuse scandal in 2002, a lawyer putting pressure on my diocese to enter into blanket mediated settlements issued a press release in which he claimed that my bishop “destroyed sex abuse records” in my diocesan personnel file. The settlements the lawyer was seeking had nothing to do with claims against me. I had already been in prison for eight years when the 2002 scandal erupted.
But his claim about the destruction of files fit right into the public panic, exploited it, and made for some lurid local headlines. When you read media reports about the scandal, and they cite things like “court documents say … ” the “court documents” are often little more than self-serving motions put into play by contingency lawyers seeking to bolster their bargaining positions. Often, the legal motions are prepared and filed more for their media impact than for the court.
Days after the media splash about fictitious “destroyed sex abuse files,” a disgruntled priest in my diocese got a headline of his own when he cited the lawyer’s claim and declared that indeed records from my file were in fact destroyed. Then one of the Boston founders of Voice of the Faithful grabbed some headlines of his own when he published “an open letter to the U.S. Bishops” in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. His letter cited the “destroyed” records in my file, and called upon the U.S. Bishops to halt the practice of destroying sex abuse records in priests’ personnel files nationwide.
It became clear in the entire presentation of this story that the people involved insisted on talking about me, but none of them were talking TO me. You can read the longer version of what happened next in “Case History: Part III” here on These Stone Walls, but I’ll give you the short version.
The sole evidence that anything was destroyed in my file was a simple “letter from the director of a medical facility to my bishop. The letter instructed him that I signed a limited release to reveal to my bishop medical care I received from a neurologist following a diagnosis of epilepsy in the late 1980s. The doctor’s letter requested that once the medical file is reviewed by the bishop, it should be either returned to him or destroyed, and not become part of a permanent file in my diocese. Frankly, my medical care was none of anyone else’s business.
SPIN AND AVAILABILITY BIAS
After the story about “destroyed records” splashed in the media, I wrote to the medical provider who was the source of the letter. He confirmed that the records in question had nothing whatsoever to do with any claims of abuse, but were merely a description of a medical diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. I think most people, including Catholic priests, have a basic expectation that confidential medical care is in fact confidential.
I sent a copy of the medical provider’s letter of explanation to my bishop asking that he use it to refute the impression that documents in my file were “secretly” destroyed. As with most of my correspondence with my bishop throughout this crisis, there was no response whatsoever. Then I sent a copy to Father Edward Arsenault, my bishop’s delegate and spokesperson who was responsible for disseminating correct information to, and about, the priests accused. He, too, never responded.
Then I sent a copy to the priest in my diocese who used the story to grab a headline of his own. He returned the letter to me unopened with a note: “Communications with you are neither prudent nor welcomed.”
Then I sent a copy to the reporter who wrote the article about the “destroyed sex abuse files.” She ignored the explanation and documentation, and allowed the story of files secretly destroyed by Church officials to remain in public view because it was a better story for her purposes.
Then I sent a copy of the truth to editors at the National Catholic Reporter who printed the VOTF founder’s shameless exploitation of the story. NCR ignored my letter and documentation.
Finally, I sent a copy of the truth to the president and founder of Voice of the Faithful in Boston who used the contrived story to generate his own headline. Two weeks later, my envelope came back to me unopened and stamped, “Refused by Addressee.”
So this is what I meant by “truth in justice.” Sometimes a story that has been told in the media isn’t true at all, or at least isn’t the entire truth. The quality of truth, and the quality of justice that results from it, doesn’t always speak well of the credibility of those spreading it or using it for their own ends. The story of destroyed records fit a certain agenda that contingency lawyers, reporters, and purportedly Catholic “reformers” had in common. They wanted to present accused priests and their bishops in the worst possible light, and were not open to any information that filtered that light. The result was a story that was contrived, spun, packaged, and presented to you as “truth,” but it wasn’t the truth, and it contained no justice.
WHAT CONSTITUTES A VOICE OF THE FAITHFUL?
“Truth in Justice” is the name of an advocacy organization for the wrongfully convicted. It has endorsed These Stone Walls and my defense, and is linked on TSW under “Related Links.” Writer, Ryan A. MacDonald has an example of “Truth in Justice” of his own published at “A Priest’s Story” on These Stone Walls. It’s a brief essay with a truth that a few people have found shocking, not only for its content, but for the fact that its particular truth has been suppressed in the media, including the Catholic media.
A few people were outraged by what Mr. MacDonald revealed in “Truth In Justice,” but some people are very selective in their outrage. When he approached a local leader of Voice of the Faithful about discussing this story, the response was, reportedly, “We wish Father MacRae well, but we don’t want to hear from him, and we don’t want to hear about him.” It wasn’t Ryan’s first and only disappointing skirmish with Voice of the Faithful, an organization in which, I should point out, he is a member. Earlier last year, Ryan sent me a copy of a series of e-mail exchanges with the moderator of a blog sponsored on the official VOTF website.
Having no on-line access at all, I don’t know if the VOTF blog is still up and running, but I hope not. The title of the blog was “Pharisee Watch,” and it called on fellow Catholics to join VOTF in selecting and holding out for public contempt VOTF’s nominees as “modern day pharisees.”
The first nominees included Phil Lawler, author of The Faithful Departed, and a writer for Catholic Culture. Another nominee was Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and just about anyone else who dared to openly disagree with the venomous dissent that has been a part of VOTF’s agenda since its inception while its leaders manipulated and distorted the crisis in the Catholic Church. In a well-written letter published by NCR (Nov. 14,2009) Ryan wrote:
“I was glad to see that Voice of the Faithful is committed to stop ‘howling at the moon’ (NCR, 11/13), and has begun ‘to model the church we want to see.’
The ‘shift in attitudes and methods’ now touted by VOTF should begin with closing down this unfortunate and hypocritical blog. It is little more than a smear campaign, and it does not speak well of an organization that claims to recognize integrity in the Church and priesthood. VOTF’s ‘Pharisee Watch’ blog simply doesn’t model any Church that I want to be in.”
In a series of e-mail exchanges that were printed and mailed to me, Mr. MacDonald challenged the sheer hypocrisy of VOTF’s misguided blog. The most telling part of this story is the fact that none of Ryan MacDonald’s comments about the blog were posted on VOTF’s blog. This is an important development for an organization whose initial platform was to demand total transparency from the Church and bishops. For an example of VOTF’s challenges in the matter of its own transparency, see Kiera McCaffrey’s essay, “Twilight of the Scandal” (Catalyst, December 2006).
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32).
Saint John was correct, but first, as Ryan MacDonald pointed out in “Truth in Justice,” someone has to tell it. Someone has to tell all of it. A real voice of the faithful is one for whom the truth is an end in and of itself, the whole truth without spin, agendas or misplaced loyalties.
The truth really will set us free, but you have no idea just how precious freedom is until someone takes it from you through a lie. Truth must not be reduced to the furtive whispers and backroom manipulations within the hearts of otherwise faithful people by “the Eye of the Beholder” whom I described in another post. To serve a lie is to serve the master of all lies.