Discussion Question: How to handle accusations against clergy?

The question is this:

In your opinion, how should accusations of clergy misconduct be handled, so that the rights of both the innocent and the guilty are respected?  Or if you prefer, accusations against school teachers, catechists, police officers, you name it.

Does your diocese [district / department / etc.], or one you are familiar with, have a good process that works well?

Do you know of a case where an accusation of a serious crime was made, and the situation was handled well?  What did it look like?  Please do not use identifying info.  This is not about any particular case, but about what methods that can be applied generally to all cases.

(Which means, I expect,the method needs to have multiple options, depending on the  nature of the accusations, etc.)

Also, if you have a story to tell, stick to the facts that you know.  Conjecture is not helpful and I’ll have to make fun of you it will lead others into temptation.

–Reply in the combox, or on your blog and then leave a link in the combox.  Thanks.–


My personal experience: I’ve been very closely involved in two serious cases — one accusation of child molestation, one of rape.  One of the accusations was true, the other was false. [Those are the facts, not the findings. I was close enough to both cases to know the facts.]  Both cases were handled fairly, in my opinion, by the authorities to whom the incidents were reported, and by the police.  Allegations were taken seriously, steps taken to keep minors safe, and investigations conducted quickly and with no pressure to sway the witnesses one way or another.

That said, in the case of the true accusation, the criminal committed more crimes before he was apprehended.  (He was at large, stranger to the victims.)  In the case of the false accusation, the man accused did suffer tremendously from the social stigma, being removed from work with minors, etc., even though he was eventually (and fairly quickly) acquitted.

–> As a result of these experiences, I have a hard time seeing my way clear to what an “ideal” process is.  If the accusations are true, there is a pressing need to protect any future victims.  Sweeping measures to remove the accused from any chance to harm more people is important.  And the victims themselves need to be given tremendous support.

But especially with sexual crimes, and often enough with other crimes, there is no evidence.  It is very easy to bring false accusations.  Someone so inclined can shut down a ministry at will, simply by making the accusation.  It takes a very clear head and a fair bit of life experience to be able to weed through the claims and personalities and discern whether the accusation is likely to be true or not.

–> I imagine many cases are not like the ones in which I was involved — where there were clear-thinking bystanders who knew the the parties involved and the details of the alleged incidents well enough to quickly resolve whether there was a probable crime.  One of the hallmarks of repeated sexual abuse is that a group of on-lookers enable the behavior and refuse to intervene.  Another, is that if innocent party is not taken seriously, it can wreak some serious psychological damage — creating an “unreliable” victim and the impression that the victim is the guilty one.

And distinctive in the case of church-related scandals, is that I don’t think we know each other very well. The community is often geographically spread out, and lives mostly apart.  We come together for a tiny slice of our lives, but the world of church ministry is separate from our other work, our other leisure, our home life, etc.  There are few people who know us very well.  Who get to see us in all places and times and contexts.

So it is hard.  I’d like to hear thoughts on what you think would make a good, fair way of dealing with accusations.



9 thoughts on “Discussion Question: How to handle accusations against clergy?

  1. 1) Avoid gossip. This is not an official response or action, but one that ought to be taken by the Catholic community at large.

    ie.: “I have secret info on this guy that NO ONE ELSE HAS, and that makes me better than you! Wait ’til you see my predictions against him come true!”

    I’ve seen a number of those on the blogosphere already, and quite frankly they disgust me. Especially when they come from folks who tout themselves as ultra-good followers of the Catechism and the Magesterium.

    2) Protect innocents, including those innocent until proven guilty.

    3) Make certain there are generally known to be penalties available for those who knowingly lie in their accusations, just as certainly as there are punishments for those who are genuinely abusive.

    Michael Jordan managed to shut down rumors about alleged gambling issues by stating he’d like to know who was saying such things, since there’d ‘certainly be a lawsuit’ when he found out.

    Knowing there’d be a price to pay for false accusations would, I’d think, weed out the gold-diggers & the folks with serious issues from the genuine victims who deserve justice.

    There’s my 2 cents…

    1. I like your 2 cents.

      In a hypothetical case of someone accusing Fr. A (or Sister B, or Mrs. C . . .), of misconduct, what do you think are the steps to take to protect the innocent while the investigation is underway? Assume a case where it isn’t obvious one way or another who is the guilty party.

  2. No personal experience to share, just a general thought. In a situation where the accused person is innocent — there is NO ideal way to handle it. No matter what, there will be fallout. When you come right down to it, this is a consequence of sin in the world.

  3. A man accused of arson, car theft, rape or murder may be freed on bail and may then:

    Be around buildings he might set on fire.

    Be around cars he might steal.

    Be around people he might rape.

    Be around people he might murder.

    But he is innocent until proven guilty.

    One accused of child molestation…?

    1. Which way are you leaning? Let him out on bail, or hold him until all is said and done? Or some nuanced thing you’re going to explain to me?

      [My limited experiences is that accusations do not necessarily entail an arrest. In the case of rape, molestation, child abuse etc. What I have seen is the accused is removed from access to likely victims while the investigation is carried out. Ie children removed from home, removed from teaching positions, etc.]


      1. I mean in some cases a priest may be “out on bail,” that is, free to conduct his life as an innocent man; in other cases, he is not.

        I leave that decision to the relevant authority; but I’d expect that authority to publicly make the choice in every case.

        And bear the opprobrium of choosing poorly.

  4. Good points, Christian. Hadn’t thought of that.

    I honestly don’t know the way this is handled in my Arch-D. My armchair lawyer suggests it’d be good to have a restraining order re. both parties being near each other, while the swamp is drained.

    Biblio is right in that I don’t think you CAN have an ideal way to handle it. Even if one side or the other is exonerated, there’s always the risk that the accusation will result in someone’s name carrying around the stink as a result. <:(

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