Thomas G. Guarino
First Things Magazine
September 20, 2011
Recently archbishop of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley published on his archdiocesan website a list of the names of priests accused of the sexual abuse of children. Accompanying the list was a letter that carefully explains the rationale for his decision.
Cardinal O’Malley indicates that he is deeply concerned about the tragedy of sexual abuse and hopes to ensure that it is “never repeated in the Church.” He further states that his motivation in publicizing the priests’ names is rooted in a concern for “transparency and healing” and for the “restoration of trust.” At the same time, he acknowledges that there are interests “related to the due process rights and reputations of those accused clergy whose cases have not been fully adjudicated.”
Throughout his letter, the cardinal adduces legitimate concerns that cannot be gainsaid. The sexual abuse of children by priests is a horrendous sin and crime. The episcopal neglect that often attended such abuse is similarly condemnable. And it is precisely these past sins and crimes which impel the cardinal’s actions.
The list published by the archdiocese includes the names of “all clergy of the Archdiocese who have been publicly accused of sexually abusing a child [even] where canonical proceedings remain to be completed.” O’Malley explains that in listing the names of accused priests, he is not relying on the standard of credibility since the meaning of that term is variable. Also included are the names of deceased priests who have already been publicly accused. In a separate list, “the names of accused clergy where the accusations have been found not substantiated . . . if the names of those priests are already in the public domain.”
In publishing these names on the Boston website, O’Malley is hoping for transparency and the removal of every shadow of deception. In a diocese which had previously stood as a model of opacity, such intentions are admirable. Nonetheless, while eschewing deception is a worthy goal, significant problems attend the publication of the recent list.
First, the publication of priests’ names whose canonical proceedings have not been completed courts the danger of rash judgment and detraction. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists such offenses as violations of the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” One is considered guilty of rash judgment if one “even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” One is guilty of detraction if one “without [an] objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (no. 2477).
Parading a man’s name as an accused sexual abuser on a public website of the archdiocese while canonical proceedings remain incomplete seems to draw near to the transgressions noted by the Catechism. It is true that these men have already been publicly accused. But will not listing them on the archdiocesan website inexorably tar these priests’ reputations with the scarlet letter of priest-abuse?
Second, what about the presumption of innocence for accused priests, a right trumpeted in the Dallas Charter (Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People)? Are these words mere obiter dicta, without substance and foundation? Does not the publishing of names of those accused whose cases are still under review constitute a rush to judgment in the public square? Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal on campus rape accusations, Peter Berkowitz asks, “Where are the professors…who will insist clearly and in public that due process is a fundamental component of American political institutions and culture . . . indispensable in a free society to the fair administration of justice? Where are the professors . . . who will stand up and declare that the presumption of innocence rightly gives expression to both the belief in the dignity of the individual and the awareness of human fallibility?” If secular legal processes are deeply concerned with human dignity and the presumption of innocence, how much more carefully should such processes be employed in the Church of Christ?
Third, it has also become a contemporary practice in certain quarters to lionize victims while demonizing victimizers, a practice that can have dangerous results. Everyone remembers the hysterical reaction that followed upon the accusation of rape leveled against members of the Duke University lacrosse team—a charge of which the students were completely exonerated. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, seeks the healing of both the victim and the wrongdoer, with the vilification of neither. Has the recent publication of names in Boston simply followed the popular path of demonizing the alleged wrongdoers—and this because those accused deserve public wrath and scorn?
Finally, the relegation of the listed priests to the court of harsh public opinion can only damage the mutual bonds of respect which ought to exist between a bishop and his priests. The clergy in Boston now know that their reputations may not be guarded by their spiritual father. To many priests and lay Christians, the publication of the recent list will be regarded not as a gesture of transparency on the part of O’Malley, but as a lamentably short-sighted legal and public relations maneuver, showing little care for the reputations of priests.
Everyone understands that the issue of priestly abuse is a sharks’ tank for bishops who are constantly hounded by lawyers, advocacy groups, and the media. And in O’Malley’s defense, it must be remembered that he is the pastor of a local church which may aptly be described as an ecclesiastical Chernobyl, the ground zero of the American abuse crisis. But all bishops should realize that for priests to react cynically toward bishops—in Boston or elsewhere—is only damaging to the Church’s future. Jeopardizing the reputation of Boston’s priests is a high price to pay for short term hosannas from advocacy groups or the media.
Instructive here are the insights of Bl. John Henry Newman. Newman lauded the courage of bishops such as Basil, Athanasius, Gregory and Ambrose for their unwavering commitment to the truth. Reflecting on their lives, he concluded that “truth is the first object of the Christian’s efforts; peace but the second.” I have no doubt that the recent actions in Boston are intended to serve the cause of truth.
But by publicly parading accused men who may very well be innocent, such actions have the unfortunate appearance of seeking only peace—and at a very heavy price.
Fr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University.