When the United States bishops meet in Seattle in June for their semiannual conference, they will review the implementation of the 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” It has served, for almost ten years, as the primary mechanism to safeguard minors from sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church. While the bishops should be applauded for their efforts in trying to prevent harm to children, its sloppily drafted guidelines, commonly known as the Dallas Charter, have failed to promote justice for priests or to satisfy civil authorities. The bishops’ dragnet response to the heinous crime of pedophilia has ruined the reputation of innocent priests. Its one-size-fits-all approach to any accusation of sexual impropriety has left every innocent priest vulnerable to defamation and dismissal from the ministry.
Justice demands some adjustments in the Charter for the good of the lower clergy, the bishops, and the Church. The findings of veteran attorney Donald H. Steier, who played a role in more than 100 abuse investigations, seem to support this conclusion. In a recently submitted report to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, he said,
One retired FBI agent who worked with me to investigate many claims made in the Clergy Cases told me, in his opinion, about ONE-HALF of the claims made in the Clergy Cases were either entirely false or so greatly exaggerated that the truth would not have supported a prosecutable claim for the childhood sexual abuse.
These guidelines designed to address the clergy abuse crisis have put priests in a situation that defies the standard of justice that all Americans enjoy. The imposition of administrative leave and a zero-tolerance policy in the case of accused priests have left them open to presumption of guilt. It has had deleterious effects on the innocent and clergy morale in general. What follows is a proposal to rectify their unfair treatment.
First: Any charges leveled against a priest should be subject to the same scrutiny as any civil criminal complaint. Rules similar to civil due process should be observed before a man is removed from ministry and placed on administrative leave (removal pending further investigation), unless there is irrefutable evidence against him. The present standard of forcing administrative leave is based only on a “credible” accusation, “one which has a semblance of truth to it following an initial examination of the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegation.”
But this standard is weak and broad. For example, a grand jury indicted 21 priests in Philadelphia who were previously cleared for ministry by the diocesan review board. Justin Cardinal Rigali immediately placed them on administrative leave. He asserted “that placing them on leave is not a final determination or judgment.” However, for the wrongly accused, the stigma of administrative leave is almost impossible to overcome. An accusation of past misconduct is insufficient by itself to justify a current, automatic suspension.
Second: The zero-tolerance policy for abusers in the Charter offends true justice. Civil jurisprudence has always recognized degrees in crime — for example, first-degree or second-degree murder or manslaughter. These designations should also be part of a revision of the Charter, since they are important for deciding an appropriate punishment. All cases legally designated as “sexual abuse” are not the same: There is a vast difference between sexual contact with a pre-pubescent child and one with a consenting 17-year-old. In the case of the teenager, though criminal in some states, there may be some room for rehabilitation with future ministerial parameters imposed on the offending priest. Likewise, special consideration should be given to a proven case of abuse that occurred in the distant past with no indications of recurrence. These last two cases should not necessarily merit automatic suspension from all public priestly functions or laicization (defrocking). Such actions are also inconsistent with the gospel’s call for mercy and forgiveness.
Third: A proliferation of lawsuits has been brought about by mostly spurious claims based on “recovered memories.” It has been shown that investigators sometimes suggest the possibility of past abuse, which then convinces a vulnerable person that abuse did indeed occur. This type of evidence should not be admissible; it should only be considered if there is unimpeachable corroborating data.
In their recently issued annual report prepared by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) on compliance with the Charter, the bishops claim that “while current accusations [of child abuse] are rare . . . there has been found an increase in reports of boundary violations or inappropriate behavior by priests.” Due process and probable cause will give the clarity necessary for justice. Not to do so will leave priests open to any specious claims of whatever constitutes abuse in the contemporary mindset.