Allegations against priests — guilty until proved innocent?
The Irish Catholic issue of 18 August carried comments of Ian Elliott and Colm O’Gorman rejecting my view that no punitive action be taken by bishops against priests against whom allegations have been made until proof is provided that these allegations are true.
Neither of these critics seems to appreciate that supporting the removal of priests from ministry on the sole basis of an unproven allegation offends against every principle of law. They are in fact advocating the principle GUILTY UNTIL PROVED INNOCENT. I claim that this principle is unjust, illegal and unconstitutional.
Mr O’Gorman gives as his defence that many offences reported to the Director of Public Prosecutions are not followed up. Surely this is a matter for the DPP; if he does not prosecute, then the allegation is not proveable and can be dismissed; and the rule of law stands: innocent until proved guilty.
Mr O’Gorman admits that there is a problem in balancing the rights of children and of adults (why add “who are in positions of power and authority?”). His solution is that best practice requires that children’s rights be PARAMOUNT. This is merely playing with words: best practice for whom? And the word PARAMOUNT: the dictionary tells me that it means “superior to all others”. I must remind Mr O’Gorman that in Irish law all citizens are equal in regard to basic rights. The rights of children are NOT paramount where there is a conflict of rights. They are important, but equally so are the rights of all other citizens, including priests.
Again, Mr O’Gorman is playing with words when he says that a person who has abused a child should be required to step aside. Of course we all agree with this, but here we are not talking about “a person who has abused a child”: we are talking about a person against whom an allegation of child abuse has been made, but WHO MAY BE TOTALLY INNOCENT. We are back again to the principle of “guilty until proved innocent”.
Mr Elliott of the National Board for Safeguarding Children more or less concedes my point that no punitive action should be taken by bishops against priests pending examination of allegations made against them. He says that the bishop should “take whatever preventative measures they deem appropriate to safeguard vulnerable children during an investigation”.
Nobody will disagree with this statement, but I would vehemently oppose any “preventative measures” involving removal from priestly ministry or any publication of allegations pending investigation. A priest has basic rights to his good name and reputation, and any punitive measures taken against him pending investigation are, as I have claimed above, unjust, illegal and unconstitutional. Why should a priest be picked out for such punitive treatment when no other group is?
I sincerely hope that the Association of Catholic Priests, of whom I have the honour to be a member, will pursue this matter with vigour and determination. Money is, as always a great motive for the making of false allegations against priests who, as professed celibates, are hopelessly vulnerable to such allegations.
Letter from James Good, Douglas, Cork. Edited version published in the Irish Catholic on 8 September 2011.