National Catholic Reporter: Clergy witch hunt? – Due process for accused priests is a sham, critics say
WASHINGTON (National Catholic Reporter) – Four years ago, an adult woman informed her local diocese that a recently ordained priest had groped her. No criminal or civil charges were filed, but the initial investigation showed that the accusation was plausible – that it could have happened, recalled Father Michael Sullivan, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., a priest and canon lawyer who previously served as judicial vicar in the Crookston, Minn., Diocese.
A diocesan review board, said Father Sullivan, eventually determined that the accusation “was a trumped-up charge.” The priest, said Father Sullivan, had “spurned her affections,” informing her “that I’m a celibate and we’re not going there.”
Still, said Father Sullivan, the bishop rejected the review board’s determination and did not allow the priest to return to public ministry. The priest has appealed the bishop’s ruling, but the case, said Father Sullivan, is “swallowed up in Rome.” The priest currently receives no pay or medical benefits from the diocese, said Father Sullivan.
The details differ from case to case, but it’s a story Father Sullivan says he has heard countless times. Due process for priests accused of abuse, he said, is a sham.
Nearly five years after the U.S. bishops approved national policies to remove sexually abusive diocesan priests from public ministry, critics of the process say the system is broken – shielding some abusers from the consequences of their actions while simultaneously failing to ensure the rights of the accused, who are presumed innocent under both church and criminal law.
As written, the procedures (called “canonical norms”) approved by the Vatican in 2002 and promulgated by the bishops provide a seemingly fair-minded step-by-step process for bishops and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to determine the credibility of an abuse accusation. The procedures also provide for measures to remove the offender from ministry if the charges are proved. The norms call on dioceses to establish written policies to deal with accusations against clergy and to report credible allegations to local law enforcement.
Under the procedures, a diocesan official designated by the bishop (typically the chancellor or vicar general) conducts an initial investigation to determine if an allegation is “credible” or “substantive.”
“That level of being ‘credible’ is a low level of certainty,” said Michael Ritty, a canon lawyer who has worked with accused priests on about 250 such cases over the past five years. “I have seen it as low as the priest happened to be in the [same] parish at the time this person made this allegation – that it was geographically possible. That might have been the only proof [necessary] to go forward.”
In fact, in many cases, the standard of judging credibility is even lower than that, said Father Sullivan, who chairs the board of Justice for Priests and Deacons, a seven-year-old organization whose 90 affiliated canon lawyers have assisted approximately 540 priests and deacons, the vast majority of whom face allegations of sexual abuse.
Presumption of guilt
“The assumption is that [the allegation] must be correct because nobody would [come forward] otherwise and therefore the priest ends up being perceived as guilty almost all the time because it is pretty difficult to prove you have not done something,” said Father Sullivan. “So the presumption has switched from [the accused] being innocent to being guilty,” said the priest. “I’m reminded of the Salem Witch Hunts.”
Others dispute the idea that an accusation is tantamount to a guilty finding. Five years ago 90 percent of abuse allegations against priests were found to be credible, a number that is down to 40 percent today, Patricia O’Donnell Ewers, chair of the National Review Board established by the bishops to oversee implementation of diocesan child protection plans, told a parish gathering in North Naples, Fla., March 29.
In 2006, 630 “credible allegations” of sexual abuse by clerics against minors were reported, according to the 193 dioceses that responded to a Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate survey released earlier this month. The vast majority of cases reported relate to abuse that allegedly occurred prior to the 1990s.
“A total of 22 priests or deacons were returned to ministry in 2006, based on the resolution of an allegation made during or prior to 2006,” CARA reported, while “156 priests or deacons (36 identified in 2006 and 120 identified before 2006) have been temporarily removed from ministry pending completion of an investigation.”
A flawed process
If an allegation is deemed credible in the preliminary investigation, the case is then referred to the diocesan review board. Across the nation, diocesan review boards are largely lay committees established as part of the 2002 reforms. Their job is to investigate, to gather evidence (through interviews and documentation) and to give the bishop their opinion as to whether the accusation is substantive.
“The priest is supposed to receive canonical advice at this time and be able to review the charges against him so he can respond to them,” said Father Sullivan, but he is instead frequently blind-sided, forbidden in some cases from even knowing the name of his accuser or the nature ...
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