With the confirmation hearing of Justice Kavanaugh we witnessed the standard of “guilty by accusation” replace innocent until proven guilty, and the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” or even the lower standard of “to a preponderance of the evidence”. But the standard of “guilty by accusation” has already been in use in the Church in the US as it is applied to Catholic priests accused of abuse of a minor since the 2002 Dallas Charter.
The Dallas Charter accomplished many good things but the standard that was adopted for priests and deacons accused of abuse of a minor was that an accusation be deemed “credible”. What does that mean? In the context of the Dallas Charter that meant that the abuse could have occurred if the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator were more or less in the same place at the same time and that time maybe 20, 30, 40 or more years ago. So therefore, on any Sunday in February 2019 at Mass, you and I are in the same place at the same time. That’s all that is necessary to deem an abuse allegation credible and to have a priest removed from ministry. As a result, since 2002 hundreds of priests have been removed, without any due process. Even when accusations are deemed not credible by law enforcement, Bishops will often not accept that and still remove a priest without substantiated evidence or canonical due process. That is certainly a very low bar for conviction and every priest in the US knows it and knows he could be next. This is especially dangerouswhen cases are not adjudicated criminally but civilly and lots of money is on the table. Money tends to bring out false allegations. You can understand why trust between priests and bishops is at an all-time low.
In 2000, the U S bishops published a pastoral letter entitled “Responsibility and Rehabilitation.” It criticized the American criminal justice system for adopting one-size-fits-all concepts of justice and policies that often distort justice such as “zero tolerance” and “three strikes and you’re out”. The bishops urged that justice should be restorative, and not just punitive. Two years later, those same bishops signed the Dallas Charter inflicting upon their own priests what they condemned in the criminal justice system: zero tolerance and one strike you’re out. I wonder if they read their own letters.
With that being said, I was stunned to read that Cardinal DiNardo, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “Credibly accused is being worked out in terms of our lawyers even now as we speak.” What? After 16 years of applying one definition of “credible” to priests and deacons, the Cardinal now says it is being examined for another definition? All of a sudden the wording the US Bishops are using to define an allegation of abuse of a minor has now become: “credible and substantiated”. Why the change? That would be because the standard now is going to apply to Bishops and Cardinals. CYA Bishops.
With the Dallas Charter and all that we have done since, the Church in the US has become a model for how to prevent or spot abuse as soon as possible and weed out abusers and not give them access to children. In fact, our Policies and Procedures for the Protection of Minors are stronger and more effective than any other organization in the US that deals with children. But the Policies and Procedures will not work, no matter how well designed and applied, if those in leadership cover up or hide their own complicity in the problem.
The upcoming summit at the Vatican with the Pope and the Presidents of all the worlds Bishops Conferences is for the specific purpose of dealing with the issue of abuse of minors. Well, fine. I am sure most of the rest of the world still needs to do what we in the US have done. But failure to address the issue of Bishops and Cardinals who have been accused or who have covered up abuse or who have turned a blind eye to homosexual predation in seminaries will not put the final nail in the coffin on this sad chapter in the Church’s life.
In the meantime I happened to see this news story: “A bombshell investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News found that over the last 20 years, about 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced credible accusations of sexual misconduct.” I wonder how much press this will get? But no matter, the issue of sexual abuse is real and cuts across all demographics. Let’s pray that the Church will be a leader in helping rid society of this awful plague against the dignity of human persons and God’s beloved children.
Fr. John B.