Thomas G. Guarino
Professor of Systematic Theology
Seton Hall University
October 16, 2012
Msgr. Charles Kavanagh, a once prominent priest of the New York Archdiocese, was forcibly laicized by a canonical process in December 2010, after years of fighting an accusation of lascivious behavior towards a high school student.
But Kavanagh’s case has become more complicated in recent months. According to a press release by his attorneys, on April 26, 2012, in the presence of a Federal judge, Kavanagh’s accuser recanted his chief claim, admitting that he fabricated his long-held charge that the priest had engaged in lewd actions with him while on a high school outing to Washington, D.C. This retraction is extraordinary news. Every newspaper in New York, and many media outlets nationally, had trumpeted the story that the well-known Msgr. Kavanagh was an abuser who had been suspended from priestly ministry by the New York Archdiocese.
On May 1, 2012, the communications director for the Archdiocese issued a statement acknowledging that the victim in this case had changed one of his claims. But he continued, “It should be noted that Mr. Kavanagh was found guilty by a church court of multiple counts of sexual abuse of a minor, and that this particular trip to Washington was not the basis for the court’s decision.” The recantation, therefore, would have no bearing on Kavanagh’s removal from active ministry and his return to the lay state.
The proceedings of Kavanagh’s canonical trial are not publicly available, so one cannot have certainty about the details attending his case. The Archdiocese of New York has affirmed the accuracy of the statement it issued in May, while Kavanagh’s lawyers contend that the remaining charges against him (which are denied) fall short of “abuse.”
Prescinding from this ongoing dispute, what broader lessons may be learned from the false accusation in this case and in other cases like it?
First, this particular (now retracted) accusation was decades old when it was first lodged. It is now admitted to be a falsehood. This raises a general question: Should a bishop act quickly to suspend any priest, particularly when there are no witnesses to support an accusation and when time has dimmed memories? Isn’t this the traditional wisdom undergirding statutes of limitations—the recognition that facts and events are no longer clearly recalled after the passage of years? Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has recently noted that over the past three years, one hundred and seventy-three false accusations have been lodged against Catholic priests in the US. This statistic alone should give any bishop pause before enacting a suspension.
Second, as Cardinal Dulles pointed out, priests are now suspended from ministry if an accusation is deemed “credible,” a term meaning nothing more than that a claim is not entirely groundless. David Pierre, in his eye-opening book Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, has shown the significant problems attending this ambiguous criterion. A “credible” accusation may mean only that, at a given time, the accuser and the priest lived in the same geographical area. Should such a flimsy standard of evidence lead to the suspension of a priest? Pierre further points out that uncorroborated accusations are now finding their way into obituaries, with innocent priests tainted even in death by the claim that they were once “credibly accused.” By setting the probability bar so low, bishops run the risk of engaging in an action they would surely deplore: colluding in the defamation of innocent priests.
Third, the Dallas Charter (Charter for the Protection of Young People) continues to drive a wedge between bishops and their presbyterates, with priests grimly recognizing that their lives and reputations can be ruined in an instant by an insubstantial charge. It often takes years for an innocent priest to be restored to ministry. In his 2010 book, The Conspiracy, Msgr. William McCarthy of Paterson, N.J. documents his nightmarish five years of suspension before a canonical trial exonerated him of a false accusation. He sadly concludes that church officials “believe the best course of action in all instances is to presume guilt first and sort out the facts later.” But the Catholic Church cannot afford for bishops to be alienated from, and distrusted by, their own priests—nor should bishops, of all people, purvey a dubious theology of priesthood, one smacking of mere pragmatism.
Fourth, the American bishops have vigorously taken the lead in protecting religious liberty. Their recent statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” is an excellent document. When conjoined with “In Defense of Religious Freedom,” issued by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, American Christians have at their disposal two thoughtful defenses of religious liberty. Let the dauntless and theologically informed stance of the bishops in this matter now characterize their position on clerical abuse as well.
Fifth, American bishops should understand that virtually nothing they do will be pleasing to broad segments of the media or to various advocacy groups. Under the cover of righteous indignation, there is a contemporary rage against the Catholic Church for many reasons: for her insistence that she bears the incomparable truth of Jesus Christ; for her tenacious upholding of biblical standards against Promethean notions of morality; and for her unwavering conviction that her foundational doctrines are divinely sanctioned. When the bishops stand up for religious freedom, they are accused of engaging in a “dramatic stunt.” When they defend the notion of marriage inscribed in the very bodies of human beings, they are denounced as biased obscurantists. When they offer a severance salary to laicized priests to help them embark on a new life, they are vilified for payouts to child abusers.
Nothing the Catholic bishops do will win the admiration of those who are convinced that the Bible and the Church are sworn enemies of personal freedom. Thus, they should not fear to act courageously on behalf of justice for priests. A wise course of action would be to establish a commission of theologians and canonists to examine the Dallas Charter in light of the principles of natural justice and the Church’s theology. There should be an emphasis on proportional penalties for various levels of criminality, with norms that are relatively invariable from diocese to diocese. Degrees of culpability and clear standards of evidence are the marks of a thoughtful legal system. Ambiguous definitions of abuse, low levels of evidential credibility and zero-tolerance solutions are the signs of unsophisticated and capricious approaches.
Child abuse is an abominable sin and crime. Of that there is no question. The bishops have clearly acknowledged this tragedy and addressed it. But neither the Church nor society is well served when bishops repent of their former Panglossian inaction by now adopting Draconian penalties.
The American bishops have no easy job preaching the Gospel and shepherding God’s flock in contemporary society. At virtually every turn they are attacked and reviled. Such venom surely gives them pause when thinking about revising the Charter’s norms. Nonetheless, as risky as any modification of the Charter may appear to bishops (for they will certainly be accused of coddling criminals), only clear-headed theological and juridical reform will restore the confidence of their priests, an essential step if the Catholic Church is to be an effective witness to the Gospel in contemporary society.
The Catholic League, “Bigotry Explains False Accusations” (July 18, 2012).
David F.Pierre, Jr., Catholic Priests Falsely Accused (Mattapoisett, Ma: TheMediaReport.com, 2012).
William McCarthy, The Conspiracy: An Innocent Priest (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2010).
Statement by the law firm representing Charles Kavanagh:
Statement by the communications director for the Archdiocese of New York: