The abuse of a child is an abhorrent act that has no place in a civilised society. Most people find it difficult to contain their sense of revulsion and distaste when it is encountered. That emotional reaction is strong and often leads on to a desire to see the guilty party held to account for their actions. The rush to judgement may lead to errors being made where unproven allegations are accepted and given a degree of credibility that they do not deserve.
There have been a number of occasions recently where celebrities have been accused of historic abuse involving vulnerable minors. These revelations tend to lead to extreme reactions as people try to equate their past knowledge of an individual with what is being alleged. Sadly, this process in the media often lacks any real critical scrutiny and the fact that it is only based on a partial understanding of the case, is completely forgotten. We tend to be led by our emotions rather than our reason. We leap to judgement well before any of the evidence is examined.
It is this tendency to decide too readily what actually happened without critically examining all of the available evidence that I want to discuss in this brief paper.
The deliberate harming of a child is a serious crime and a repulsive act. It is also true that when it occurs the guilty often go unpunished by our criminal justice system. If the act is reported several years after it allegedly took place, the likelihood of securing a successful prosecution is diminished even further. This is a tragedy and a mater that our police and court system needs to examine and to change.
However, despite this, the cause of safeguarding our children is definitely not served by leaping to judgement too quickly when allegations arise, and we treat the accused as if they are guilty before they have had a chance to prove their innocence. Justice is only served where there is a balance between the need to hold the guilty to account and protecting the innocent from false accusations. These are the principles that apply in our criminal justice system and where they are breached then sanctions can and do apply.
Sadly it would seem to me that the same principles on occasions do not apply within the Catholic Church when it seeks to respond to allegations of abuse being made against its clergy.
I was recently asked for advice by a mature priest who was out of ministry as allegations of sexual abuse had been made against him. What I found particularly striking about his case was the fact that he had been waiting patiently to have his case heard by a judicial process in the Church, for several years. The allegations had already been adjudicated within the criminal justice system and it had been decided that there was no criminal case to answer, but the Church had still to make a judgement as to whether he could be returned to ministry.
The question that I found so hard to find a satisfactory answer to was simply why should it take so long for this decision to be made and justice served? It appears to me to be unfair and unjust to require an accused person to stand down from his vocation for several years on the grounds of untested allegations. It would seem that the least that the accused can expect is the opportunity to prove his innocence. It does not serve the cause of achieving safety for vulnerable children in the Church at all to act unfairly. In fact, it makes the cause of introducing effective safeguarding measures in the Church even harder because it turns many priests away from being involved with the young.
I make no judgement as to whether any of the allegations that have been made against this priest are true or not. The point I am seeking to make is that regardless as to which applies, he has a right to access justice and to have his case fairly adjudicated through a robust process in front of an impartial judge. By forcing him to remain on the side lines for an extended period of time of several years, makes the chance of him being found innocent by that process much harder. It does not serve the cause of justice in any way.
I recognise that allegations of sexual abuse against priests are likely to be strongly reacted to by many who will rush to judgement despite what the quality of the evidence is. It is therefore not surprising that Bishops are often accused of bowing to perceived pressure both from within and outside the Church to ensure that those that are accused are taken out of ministry quickly. The case for this to happen is sound but there is no justification for keeping them out of ministry for several years without a proper process being instituted whereby the evidence laid against them can be fully and impartially examined. Justice delayed is justice denied.
Throughout my involvement with safeguarding in the Catholic Church, I argued for the adoption of a principled approach to these tasks. People should be held accountable for their actions and compassion shown to those who have been harmed. The wrongly accused priest who suffers loss of status and income for years, is also a victim of bad safeguarding practice in the Church in the same way that a vulnerable child is who is not adequately protected from preventable harm. Both need to be helped and healed. If the Church’s hierarchy continues to be led by high emotions rather than strong reasoned argument, this is not going to change.
The case for a principled approach to safeguarding the vulnerable in the Church, is unstoppable in my view. Compassion for those that have been hurt and accountability for those that were involved. Define the principles upon which you will base your actions and apply them. It is a simple formula but one that would have a transformational impact on this very entrenched and enduring problem in the Catholic Church in Ireland.