Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The messiness of real life and the ugliness of NCR & SNAP

I recently read an article at the National (so-called) Catholic Reporter, concerning the efforts of Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, to resolve questions that linger painfully about some of his clergy, and how his predecessor handled accusations of misconduct against them.

As you may recall, a story blew up in the media a couple of years ago, alleging that then-Archbishop Rigali was not diligent in reporting allegations to public authorities, and in applying internal discipline. From what I gather--I have not read much on the subject beyond some news reports--the underlying issues are not only allegations of sexual abuse, but also fuzzier questions of "boundary violations," which I think would be far broader than actual abuse.

The result was that everyone was left wondering if the Church in Philadelphia was knowingly harboring priests who had committed abuse.

Enter former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. He was named to Philadelphia in September, and of course all eyes were on him to clean up this mess. His predecessor had already named a former prosecutor to review everything, and he continued that--promising action as quick as possible. He also said the Archdiocese would cooperate completely with prosecutors, and await their determination before deciding whether to restore a suspended cleric, or to remove him.

For a lot of folks, all this seems too murky; and given some of the history, it's understandable that folks are angry and skeptical. However, folks have to recognize that there's no way something like this cannot be murky:

> The difficult issue isn't when something is clear-cut. If he had an individual with a clear case against him, the prosecutor would know what to do; the archbishop would be able to remove him from ministry and have him laicized (i.e., barred permanently from exercising his priestly ministry).

> Remember we're dealing with accusations; which can be mistaken, and which can even be deliberately false. Everyone--yes, even a priest!--is entitled to fair play in how an accusation is handled; something the folks at the National Catholic Reporter and the so-called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have demonstrated they don't care about. (More on that below.)

Sometimes all anyone has to support a suspicion is rumor, odd actions or gestures, or something third-hand. I had a situation where someone came to me and said, in effect, "everyone knows So-and-so is doing something bad." I was being asked to fire someone, on that statement alone (obviously I'm leaving out the details). I asked questions: did you see or hear anything? (No.) Do you know anyone who had a more direct experience--someone who was victimized? (No.) If you do, either have that person come to me, or have that person go to the Archdiocese or the police. Eventually, someone did approach me directly (after approaching the police), and I dealt with the matter very quickly. But when a person's job, and good name, are at issue, "I heard" isn't good enough.

> What critics call "secrecy" is called "confidentiality" when it's to our benefit. In any employment situation--quite apart from a religious context--personnel matters are confidential. If I meet with an employee and give an evaluation, that's confidential. If I discipline or fire an employee, the circumstances are confidential. In theory, there are some things an employer can say; however, anyone knowledgeable in these matters will tell you that the employer risks legal action if he "defames" a former employee, and also risks a lawsuit for wrongful termination. Since I'm not a lawyer, the upshot is that when an employee departs, I don't say why.

Let's back up a moment and speak very generally. Folks get discharged from their jobs for lots of reasons; sometimes it's cost-cutting; other times it's sub-par performance; and other times its misconduct of some kind. It should surprise no one that sometimes the employer only has "smoke"; something fishy with the books, or repeated violations of procedures, but no concrete evidence of theft, for example. In such a case, any public allegation or suggestion of actual misconduct would invite a defamation lawsuit.

Also, there are times when it works to everyones advantage to have an employee go quietly. Where employees are justly fired, does it surprise you to hear they don't always like it? What do they say to family and friends? The embarrassing truth? Or some unrelated grievance that makes them look like a victim? In that situation, the departing employee can create a lot of problems; and the employer can't really respond.

One more point: when an employer keeps things confidential, it isn't just the employee who is protected; it is likely to be other people whose names get connected to something the employee is alleged to have done. For example, an employee is dismissed for inappropriate conduct toward another employee.  Here again, I had someone say s/he saw such conduct. Another supervisor and I investigated, and when we interviewed the employee who was the recipient of the inappropriate contact, s/he said it never happened. The story got around to some degree; yet in that case, I had nothing to go on. How could I discuss this publicly? Even if I didn't care about the damage to the accused employee, what about the putative victim (who said nothing happened)?

Of course none of this means a crime--or anything indicative of a possible crime--should not be reported promptly to the police. But it helps explain why when a story surfaces--either on the grapevine or in the media--the parties involved don't say much. That includes law enforcement. Even after they "conclude" their investigation. I have had situations where law enforcement looked into a matter and could not reach a definitive conclusion. They couldn't rule out that So-and-so may have done wrong, but they also couldn't develop enough real evidence to support a charge. (It should surprise no one that a lot of what folks think are "facts" and "evidence" and "proof" are nothing of the kind.)

Do you know what the police say when an investigation "concludes" in such an inconclusive way? You guessed it--almost nothing. What can they say? They can't say the accusation is true or false; they may not even be able to say whether the alleged wrong even happened; and they can't say whether the suspected person did it or not.

So back to the mess in Philly.

In light of all this, I think a reasonable person realizes two things. First, that you aren't going to have all the facts, especially when it's likely almost no one does. Second, that when a story like this sorts out, the outcome isn't going to be neat and tidy.

We would all prefer if Archbishop Chaput could come out and say something like: "the prosecutor, the grand jury, and I all agree that certain accused individuals are certainly guilty; and they will be tried, convicted and punished forthwith. Parallel to that action by the state, the Church will swiftly remove them from ministry.

"Meanwhile, we have also agreed that the following individuals are innocent and can return to work. We have established with utter certainty that the allegations against them are false. We have signed statements, video- and audiotape evidence conclusively establishing the utter impossibility of the accusations, and positively demonstrating their innocence. For example, Father Doe was accused of molesting Mr. Roe on such a such an occasion; in fact, we have conclusive, video- and eye-witness testimony that Father Doe never, in 20 years, was within 100 miles of Mr. Roe, thus the charge is conclusively false..."

How wonderful that would be! But we don't live in that world!

Much more likely is that the sorting out won't be fully explained. Some will stay but the accusations can't be utterly dispelled; some will be removed but never charged; yet for a variety of non-nefarious reasons, no legal case will ever be brought. Some folks may be removed who did not, however, commit a crime. It's rather likely that a priest might be removed for legitimate reasons other than what is rumored--and the matter won't be discussed.

Here's a completely made-up example: Father Weird-eye is removed from a parish and sent off somewhere; everyone assumes it's connected to his strange comments and odd behavior over the years, yet no actual evidence of misconduct was ever brought forward. Yet in the course of investigating it, it turns out Father has other problems; he's addicted to pain pills, he was grossly incompetent in managing funds, and has had a  breakdown. He did say weird things, but didn't commit any crimes that anyone knows of, but--he has to go.What do you do? What do you say?

In the real world, these things will remain murky. The only resolution available this side of eternity will be incomplete. I think reasonable people, upon reflection, understand this.

Then there is the aforementioned NCR and SNAP and their cheering sections.

Over the years, I've read what the NCR and SNAP have to say. I understand their anger. Who isn't angry about rape and molestation and violation of trust and wrecking of lives? Who isn't angry about a failure to act against these things, on the part of others who knew or had oversight?

But is the idea that whoever can demonstrate a greater degree of moral outrage, wins? If my anger is more compelling than yours, then I'm right? I win?

A recent NCR item on Chaput's handling of this mess, including the responses published on the site, was all too typical. Chaput announces some priests are removed, some are restored. The article--written by an NCR reporter--doesn't go into details, yet explains the decision process involved the prosecutor and review by lots of folks other than the archbishop.

Outrageous! brays the comment section, led off by someone claiming to represent SNAP. How dare Chaput return guilty priests to ministry! Other commenters--including me--ask, how do you know if the restored priests are guilty? And I ask a question I've asked before: does SNAP even care about false accusations?

Over the years, I can't recall ever seeing SNAP say it was happy about an outcome. Certainly not when the legal system exonerates a priest, as in this case: SNAP continued accusing the priest. If you peruse the Media Report site, you can see many more reasons to view SNAP with a jaundiced eye.

A recent development from the SNAP crowd, whose anger justifies anything, is to complain about what they previously demanded: laicization of priests!

For years, the complaint was, why aren't these priests removed--"defrocked"? Then, why isn't this carried out more quickly? (This is a complaint frequently made about our present pope; in fact, in his prior role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he sought to speed up the process.)

Now that bishops are seeking laicization, and the requests are being granted--well, not quickly, but less cumbersomely at least, guess what SNAP is complaining about? Laicization means the Church washes her hands of the guy! Don't laicize him, send him to a monastery!

See the game? There's no acceptable outcome.

Look--again, I understand pain and anger; I have a lot of sympathy. But pain and anger don't justify causing new pain and hurt. Being a victim of injustice doesn't make new injustice all right.

The only good thing I can say about the latest NCR item on this subject--well, two good things, are: first, the item itself is reasonably fair, consigning the bitter, fairness-be-damned ugliness to the sad, bitter commenters. And, second, a fair number of commenters actually are challenging SNAP. That's a healthy development.


Ellen said...

I grew up in the Philadelphia Archdiocese (in the western suburbs where my parents still live) and now live across the river in the Philly suburbs in New Jersey. So I have certainly read more than enough about the clergy abuse problems there. And I've also read more than my share about Jerry Sandusky and Penn State.

That said, my only comment is that if Msgr. Lynn felt that there were accusations that could be substantiated, just as Mike McQueary, why didn't they contact police when the people they reported it to did nothing? I realize that there is obedience to one's bishop, but wouldn't the right thing for him to do was to report it to the authorities?

It makes me wonder just how mentally competent Cardinal Bevilaqua was when he was in charge of the Archdiocese.

On a lighter note, I'd like to wish you the best in your new position. I'm glad you are continuing to blog - I enjoy reading it.

kilo papa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fr Martin Fox said...


You're welcome to post but exclude the four-letter words and taking God's name in vain.

Sevesteen said...

Everyone--yes, even a priest!--is entitled to fair play in how an accusation is handled;

I agree that you can't punish based on unfounded accusations. But how do you strike a balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of children? What should happen when there is credible but not conclusive evidence of abuse?

I don't think the public expects perfection in selecting priests. What I expect is that the welfare of children take priority over the feelings of employees, and especially priority over the reputation of the Church.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Those are great points.

As you say, there are times when we take an action that puts priority to the needs of children: for example, when an employee is put on "administrative leave" while an allegation is investigated.

I can live with that, but I think what's important is simply to recognize the point you make: that what we're doing is something of an imposition on the rights of the accused, and we're doing it for a powerful reason.

But realize it's more than about "feelings" of employees--or priests--but about their reputation and justice for them.

It's one thing to say that someone has to be suspended during an investigation; it's another to do as SNAP wants to do: label any and all people subject to such an investigation as "abusers."

It's one thing to say, we need a time-out for an investigation; but that time out can't go on forever. Anyone subject to an allegation has a right to have that investigation conclude.

Now, here's the thing. In at-will employment, you don't have to prove your employee guilty in order to dismiss her or him.

But the relationship between a priest and the Church is not one of employee-to-employer. It's a family relationship. A higher threshold must be met, in my opinion, before a priest is kicked to the curb.

Let me put it another way. Can anyone seriously deny there are people who would make false charges, either as a financial shakedown, or as revenge, or for demented reasons?

Granting that premise, who in his right mind would want to make things easy for such people?

And, third, if we make it easy for fakers and revenge-seekers to lodge false accusations and collect money or ruin someone, this will, in the end, come out.

I have a feeling that, somewhere in the near future, there will be a scandal about this. There will be a spectacular case that will crystalize the whole thing: a priest who is removed--and maybe jailed--on false charges. Lots of money paid on false premises. It will all be brought to light and the whole thing will be a fiasco.

And when that happens--and mark my words, it will--that will be a devastating set-back for the legitimate cause of those who really did suffer abuse, won't it?

I think anyone who seriously cares about the victims would not want that to happen.

What do you think?