Catholics in Colorado were recipients of a recent bombshell in the form of an agreement between our three Catholic dioceses and the State Attorney General’s office. According to the agreement there is to be a new “independent review” in the state of every priest’s file going back seven decades to 1950. The argument for this unprecedented inquiry is that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report issued last fall warrants a “re-evaluation” of any handling of past clerical abuses in Colorado, with the added bonus of a review of our current policies and procedures. (When were we annexed to Pennsylvania?) In other words, the attorney general is asking the Church in Colorado to prove that it’s “clean” despite the AG’s insistence that “this is not a criminal investigation.”
What it does appear to be is another case of a state’s attorney general who likes to “shake down” highly visible organizations like the Catholic Church, tobacco companies, pharmaceutical companies, etc. for publicity and/or monetary settlements. The questions for many Colorado Catholics include: Why here? Why now? Why only the Catholic Church? Numerous reports have long concluded that after the home—where the majority of sexual abuses of minors occur—the next most likely place to uncover abuse is in the public schools.
In December 2016, USA Today reported, “Despite decades of repeated sex abuse scandals─America’s public schools continue to conceal the actions of dangerous educators in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom.” That journal’s yearlong investigation found “that education officials put children in harms way by covering up evidence of abuse, keeping allegations secret, and making it easy for abusive teachers to find jobs elsewhere.” Doesn’t that sound like a familiar litany when applied to certain bishops? A 2017 Associated Press investigation reported approximately 17,000 cases of abuse against K-12 students over a four-year period (compared to 70 years). AP noted that “the number does not fully capture the problem because some states don’t track reported abuses and others vary in how they classify sexual violence.” Add to that total the sexual abuse of minors in foster care programs, organizations such as the Boy Scouts, thousands of sports programs, etc., and it is estimated that over the past 20 years as many as 1.2 million children were abused in this country.
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If that is the case, why is the Catholic Church being singled out as the arch-villain in a widespread societal problem? And why, in Colorado, where allegations of clerical abuse over the past 20 years have been practically nil, is the attorney general now angling for public mea culpas? In fact, it was the Archdiocese of Denver under former Archbishop J. Francis Stafford which, in 1991, inaugurated a strict sexual protocol for its clergy, including the reporting of credible allegations of abuse to civil authorities. Recall that this was more than a full decade before the Dallas Charter was instituted by the American bishops. For nearly 30 years Denver has served as a model “clean ship” diocese. Perhaps that is why the current investigation seeks to go back nearly 70 years, fishing through confidential personnel files without a hint of any “probable cause” as its justification. There aren’t enough recent cases to make headlines. All decent people today would agree that the sexual abuse of a minor by any adult person is both reprehensible and criminal. If justice and redress are truly one’s objects, then why not start looking into the most obvious places for such sordid behavior which would be the various public schools districts?
In addition to this “fishing expedition,” there is another disturbing aspect of the agreement with the attorney general. The three Colorado dioceses are “voluntarily” funding a new independent reparations program, administered by outsiders, to compensate any alleged victims of past abuse. This is over and above the $8.5 million that has already been paid out directly on such claims. A fresh cash pile just waiting to be distributed may even provide a powerful incentive to press new questionable or even fabricated allegations. Most, if not all, of such claims would date back far more than 30 years, at which point reliable adjudication, by ascertaining the facts, becomes extremely difficult.
The Sexual Revolution was at its peak in the 1980s and naturally affected priests and seminarians just as it did the rest of society. Even so, a 19-year-old engaging in fully consensual sex with a 17-year-old was still technically guilty of abusing a minor. Now fast forward 30 years and promise that now 47-year-old a pile of cash for simply accusing his or her 49-year-old former partner of rape. Even without buyer’s remorse, that would be a strong temptation. Does it ever happen? I personally know of one priest accused of some unnamed sexual indiscretion which had occurred in his twenties, long before he even entered seminary. Although he was a single layman at the time of the incident, he was suspended from the priesthood by a bishop, who most likely paid out a hefty settlement rather than face a wrathful media. Sadly, this priest died a broken man. How many similar cases are there where reparation simply becomes a mask for extortion? And while we must never condone clerical sex abuse, it behooves Catholics to remember that true justice requires avoiding any rush to judgment as well as showing compassion for both the accuser and the accused. “Whichever of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone” (John 8:7).
Undoubtedly the four Colorado bishops authorizing a so-called Independent Inquiry (i.e., investigation) on clerical sex abuse, conducted by former US Attorney Bob Troyer, mean well. But will such a blanket approach cause Catholics and the Church of Colorado more harm than good in the end? To that end I raise the following questions to ponder seriously:
- Is this inquest based on any outstanding allegations involving specific persons or is it just a “fishing expedition” at the behest of the attorney general?
- Why is the Catholic Church of Colorado the only public institution being singled out for inquiry?
- Considering that there is no genuine current abuse crisis in the Church of Colorado, is this investigation more about “optics” than any real substance?
- Does the broadly used term “abuse” refer to statutory violations or violations of Church discipline by her clergy? Considering that the attorney general has already stated that “this is not a criminal investigation,” how broadly will the special investigator be defining such fluid terms as “abuse” and “credible allegations?”
- Do “credible allegations” carry the same weight as canonical convictions? Will the accused have any opportunity to respond to such allegations before they are publicly released? And who will represent any deceased clergy named in the report?
- Is a priest who fell into a “honey trap” with an adult woman decades earlier going to be lumped into the same statistical category as a serial child rapist? What if his accuser is merely “settling a score?”
- Will we be told of the exact nature of any infraction found in the personnel files? What are the extenuating circumstances that will have a bearing on any given case? Will those distinctions also be made public when individuals’ names are published?
- What pressing need, if any, is there to publish the names of clerics who may have been accused 50 or more years ago of violating Church discipline ─ even when no crime was ever committed?
- Are not the families, friends, and former parishioners of accused clergy likely to suffer unnecessary hurt, trauma, scandal, and harm to their own reputations?
- Does opening diocesan personnel files to a blanket investigation without any “probable cause” constitute a grave betrayal of confidentiality, both for living and deceased members of the clergy and their relations?
- Might the dangerous precedent of opening private personnel files to secular agents today give state authorities in the future an opening to demand the breaking of the confessional seal?
- Does victim redress require the enormity of scandalizing countless people who may have known or been acquainted with priests whose names are published, even for non-criminal infractions of discipline?
It seems certain that the reputations of many current and former clergy will be irreparably injured by what can only be described as a “dragnet operation.” The bishops who authorized this process will have no power to edit, redact, oversee, or control it or the subsequent report. The special investigator is free to publish whatever he deems pertinent.
Morally, the publication of names of accused clergy may well fall into the category of public detraction and even slander, both serious sins. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes: “Slander often involves omitting details, so that the reputation of the person is blackened in word or attitude.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2477) says, “He becomes guilty of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” Also (#2507): “Respect for the reputation and honor of persons forbids all detraction and calumny in word or attitude.”
Besides the basic unfairness and lack of due process, this investigation and its subsequent publication of findings seem designed to prejudice untold Catholics and non-Catholics, encouraging many to fall into sins of slander and detraction themselves. How is such an outcome good for the Catholics of Colorado? Christ clearly taught: “Judge not, and you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). Just as abuse is a serious sin which should be directly, yet discreetly, addressed, it is also important to understand the serious nature of detraction for which this investigation serves as an open invitation.
Again, the Catholic Encyclopedia clearly warns:
Detraction is wrong even if it does not spring from malicious intent. It is malicious because it destroys what can be irreplaceable: a person’s good reputation. The revelation of faults can be necessary in some cases to preserve the community from grave harm or future grave harm. But where such conditions do not prevail, detraction remains a serious violation of charity and justice.
All good reason why the bishops of Colorado need to seriously reconsider committing to this investigation! As a final thought, the gospels remind us that without forgiveness there can never be healing. And the dredging up of offenses from the distant past will never foster that spirit of healing forgiveness.