Are priests guilty until proven innocent?

Fr. James Jackson
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On October 30th, Fr. James Jackson, FSSP, a well-known traditional Catholic priest, was arrested on charges of possession of child pornography and erotica. Jackson, author of a popular book on the traditional Latin Mass titled Nothing Superfluous, was a pastor for years at a Colorado FSSP (Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter) parish before being transferred to Rhode Island this year, and has long been a well-regarded speaker among traditional Catholics.

On November 15th, Jackson entered “no plea”, which is neither a statement of guilt nor innocence, and is a procedural move to push his court date back to January. His lawyer said he would be making no public statement on Jackson’s behalf.

Sadly, lurid accusations of this nature against priests have been all too common over the past 20 years. And in many (most?) cases, the charges have proven to be true. Because of this, many Catholics, myself included, tend to take a “guilty until proven innocent” view about priestly accusations.

But is this fair?

I know that since 2002, when the clerical abuse crisis became widely known, I have always assumed guilt when a priest was charged with an abuse or sexual misconduct accusation. After realizing the extent to which the hierarchy covered up accusations in the decades leading up to 2002–and even after—I came to presume that an accusation was as good as a fact when it came to clergy.

I remember how disappointed I was when two figures I greatly admired—Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Fr. Benedict Groeschel—both downplayed the abuse crisis and pointed the finger more at the media than the corrupt hierarchy.

I also think psychology plays a part in my presumption of guilt. If I presume guilt and the priest is later found innocent, I can still see myself as a defender of abuse victims. But if I presume innocence and the priest is found guilty, I seem like someone who doesn’t care about, or even covers up for, the victims. I think this sociological equation plays out in many Catholic minds.

However, in recent years I’ve come to see that my zeal for justice for abuse victims could be clouding my judgement about justice for falsely-accused priests.

Two cases in particular began to change my mind: the cases against Cardinal George Pell and Fr. George Rutler. Both were accused of sexual misdeeds, and in both cases I assumed they were guilty when the charges were made public. However, in both cases the charges have either been dropped or proven false. Further, in both cases there is reason to suspect they were targeted and framed.

My default presumed-guilty stance also weakened when I learned about “cancelled priests” around the country. Many of these priests have nebulous accusations whispered against them, leading to their removal from active ministry—but no formal charges are brought against them. This gives bishops a convenient way to silence a priest with whom he doesn’t see eye-to-eye.

In addition, Catholic priests have a long history of facing false charges in efforts to silence them, ranging from the Roman Empire to Anglican England to the Soviet Union. It’s not inconceivable to think such things could happen in anti-Catholic modern America as well.

So when the news came out about Fr. Jackson—a priest, whom, though I only met once, I admired from afar—I’ll admit that this time I wasn’t so quick to assume guilt.

First, the case has some odd elements. Jackson only recently arrived in Rhode Island, and yet was supposedly found in possession of child porn soon after by Rhode Island authorities. He spent years in Colorado with no suspicion of wrong-doing, but was immediately found doing horrific things once he arrived in Rhode Island? Not impossible, but odd nonetheless.

What makes me pause more is the nature of the charges against Jackson. There is no victim or witness coming forward; all the evidence consists of alleged files on his alleged computer. As someone who worked in the software field for more than 15 years, I know that planting files on someone’s computer—particularly an older priest’s parish computer—is child’s play. This could be done by a disgruntled parishioner, someone who has a vendetta against the FSSP, or even by a law enforcement official (I hope no one is so naive in 2021 as to think law enforcement officials are unaffected by the Fall). 

Another possibility is simply incompetence. Perhaps the police are mistaken, perhaps the computer in question is not Jackson’s, or another person had access to that computer and they didn’t investigate that fully. Again, hopefully no one in 2021 thinks law enforcement cannot make mistakes—even serious mistakes.

All of this isn’t to argue that Fr. Jackson is innocent. I hope he is, just as I hope any priest accused of such crimes is innocent. But I don’t know, and he very well could be guilty. If he is, I would want the harshest penalties possible applied. Nevertheless the circumstances surrounding the charges against him should at least give us pause before we declare Jackson guilty in the court of public opinion. After all, even if he is innocent, his life and ministry are likely ruined—he will always have these charges—and lingering doubt—hanging over him.

I’ve heard some argue that Fr. Jackson is being defended just because he’s a traditionalist. In other words, trads want to defend someone in their “tribe,” no matter what. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Obviously, to an extreme it can be horrific, as seen in the case of Marcial Maciel, the monstrous founder of the disgraced Legion of Christ. The Legion and their supporters covered up credible accusations and viciously attacked anyone who wanted to bring them to light. That’s a perfect case of a tribe behaving badly.

Yet being slow to believe that a beloved priest—who is beloved precisely because he publicly adheres faithfully to Catholic doctrine—is guilty of such crimes is natural. After all, if a Catholic didn’t think being faithful to the Church gives at least some help to avoid committing such actions, why bother being Catholic? If you believe that Fr. Jackson is a faithful priest, you should find it hard to believe he did these things. Of course we’ve seen that people can publicly proclaim Catholic orthodoxy and privately engage in terrible sins, so while we should be slow to believe orthodox priests can do terrible things, we shouldn’t refuse to believe it if the evidence shows otherwise. 

It’s a delicate balance to maintain: justice both for abuse victims as well as for innocent priests. The devil wins at either extreme. If we never believe the accusations against priests, we sanction abuse. Yet if we assume every accusation is true, then we presume that all priests are potential abusers and thereby undercut their ministries and damage their good names. Either way, the devil laughs. 

In our zeal to (rightly) cleanse the Church from what Pope Benedict called “filth” we can’t create an environment where every priest is looking over his shoulder fearful of a false accusation destroying his vocation. We need to be more willing to follow the fundamental principle of our justice system: innocent until proven guilty. Yes, even for Catholic priests.

[Photo: Fr. James Jackson, FSSP (Daniel Petty/Archdiocese of Denver)]

By

Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His most recent book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.

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