Bishop’s Public Statement when priest steps aside is unnecessary
The Present Situation
It has been and is the practice among Irish Bishops to make a public statement in a particular parish, when a priest in that parish is accused of child sexual abuse. The recently produced Interim Guidance from the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church headed by Ian Elliott states (No. 9 (c)): ‘the making of a public statement is a matter of necessity where the respondent [the accused priest] remains resident in the parish/ congregation… The presumption of innocence should be emphasised [in the Bishop’s public statement] ….’ It has been and is the practice, however, to make such a statement in most and perhaps all cases, when an allegation is made against a priest working in the parochial ministry in the matter of child sexual abuse.
Now it is well known that this practice of the Irish Bishops is a very contentious one. Great numbers of priests and lay people consider it to be unfair to the accused priest, especially as such a statement is regularly followed, very shortly after the Bishop’s statement, by widespread and very prominent publicity in the local media about the priest and the allegation against him. In addition, an accused priest is the only citizen in the country about whom such a statement is made in these circumstances. To very many people this episcopal practice eems to make the preservation of the presumption of innocence of the accused priest very difficult to maintain, in spite of the official church re-assurance that that principle stands, even though the public statement is made (Interim Guidance, No. 9 (c)).
It will be important here to submit this episcopal practice to significant examination.
No Public Statement, No Publicity
Some church people and others too tend to take the view that the media are only waiting for negative stories about the Catholic Church and its bishops and priests and that, therefore, they pounce with glee on a situation where a priest is accused of child sexual abuse.
The real situation, however, is quite different from this perception. Here’s what one editor of a provincial newspaper, Mr Tom Mooney of The Wexford Echo Group since 1996, wrote recently: ‘A priest can only be identified in a newspaper if he has decided to go public on the reason behind his decision to step aside from Ministry …a newspaper … would not identify the priest or his parish or indeed the locale if the accused chose not to comment, …if the diocese does not identify the priest the media is unlikely to’.
The following question was recently put to the now former editor of The People Newspapers, Wexford, Mr Ger Walsh: If no such statement were made by the Bishop or his deputy or the priest himself, would the papers publish the priest’s name, address, photo, etc. the following week? Mr Walsh replied: ‘No. There would be no basis for such a publication and certainly no newspaper could publish an allegation against an identified priest in these circumstances.’
It is quite clear from these statements that the one and only reason the media publish the priest’s name, etc. In these cases is because the Bishop’s statement (or that of the priest himself) has put the allegation and the reason for stepping aside in the public domain. In other words, the church representative has gone public, hence the media are entitled and free to report what has been made public by the church officials. In short: no public statement from the Bishop, no publicity in the media! Seán Nolan, a journalist on The People Newspapers has this to say in this regard: ‘If a newspaper then merely reports what the Bishop has said, they can hardly be accused of breaching any trust or exceeding their remit. After all they are merely repeating what the Bishop has chosen to make public in the first place.’ So, ‘quite simply from the newspaper’s point of view, if there is no announcement, then there is no story. There is nothing to report.’
This is confirmed by the fact that in all other cases apart from the priest where an allegation of child sexual abuse is made against an individual, e.g., a teacher, sports coach, uncle, father, etc. there will be no public airing of the accused person’s name, etc. when the allegation is made. To do so would expose the paper or radio station to a charge of violation of natural justice and that is the precise reason the media refrain from publishing the details in question in these cases. In this regard Tom Mooney says: ‘Each individual has a reputation recognised by law. Nobody has the legal right, outside qualified privilege, such as in the Dáil, to say in public anything that will disparage his or her reputation, if it is incorrect or not justified or cannot be substantiated’. As is widely known, the names and personal details of accused persons in relation to child sexual abuse and other crimes too will only be made public in the Irish state when the person in question is charged in court.
I recently heard a Bishop say that, in the statement a Bishop will make in the circumstances we are concerned with here, there will be no mention of the accused priest’s name. One has to wonder why this is the case or what purpose it serves. One legal author remarks in relation to this point: ‘When a party is not named in the publication, the test which decides whether the words used refer to him or her is whether the words are such as would reasonably lead persons acquainted with that party to believe he or she is the person referred to.’
Now, in the cases we are concerned with in this context, when a Bishop (or his deputy) goes to a particular parish there will normally be only one priest ministering in that parish or at most two or three. In the former case, the parishioners will know instantly what priest has been accused – their priest. So not mentioning his name is utterly ineffective in preserving the priest’s identity – if that is what the Bishop has in mind, when not mentioning the priest’s name. A similar result will come about in the situation where two or three priests are ministering in the parish. The parishioners will very soon know which of their priests has been stepped aside and the reason for it. So it seems to follow that not mentioning the priest’s name is not intended to protect the priest’s identity. If it were, it fails completely. So, why does the Bishop engage in this strategy? It is not at all clear why, but, since it isn’t to protect the priest, perhaps it is to protect the Bishop against a charge of endangering the priest’s reputation and good name. Is this, then, another instance of the church institution protecting itself at the expense of the individual priest? We need to hear Bishops themselves explaining precisely why they use this strategy.
Not consenting to the publication
In relation to this aspect of the question under consideration here the words of Tom Mooney, who has already been quoted, are apposite: ‘Generally defamation requires that the allegation be false and without the consent of the allegedly defamed person. ‘Without the consent’ is essential: the priest may not be able to prevent his removal [stepping aside], but he can deny his consent [to the publication of the statement] .… A priest has the right to refuse consent to anything that lowers his estimation in the eyes of right-minded people …so to protect his rights he should not consent to or be party to any attempt by the diocese to publicise a decision to move him from ministry because an allegation of a grave nature has been received … A priest who consents to identify himself publicly as being the subject of an investigation unwittingly may be a party to his own defamation.
This is, of course, precisely why other accused people, e.g., a head teacher, are not named publicly after an allegation has been received but only, if at all, when such a person is charged in court. It would seem clear that there are equally good grounds for the name of the priest and the allegation against him not to be made public at such an early stage.
In relation to this issue of consent Mr Mooney continues: ‘It beggars belief that the vast majority of priests seem to have no understanding of defamation. If they did, they would have an idea about how to protect what is most valuable to them, their reputation. What we all learn from the Fr. Kevin Reynolds case is that in essence he was defamed because the allegations were, to paraphrase RTE, ‘baseless, without any foundation whatever, and untrue’. Such is the nature of some allegations against priests and a diocese ought to be mindful of the repercussions of a societal belief in no smoke without fire.’
Why treat the accused priest differently?
It is clear from experience and from what has been said so far that the priest who is accused of child sexual abuse is treated differently by church officials from the way all other citizens of our country are treated, when an accusation of child sexual abuse is made against him.
It is also clear from our experience in Ireland that there is no campaign or even calls by individuals or groups for all those other citizens against whom allegations of child sexual abuse are made to be treated differently than they are now treated in our society by the statutory authorities. No one is seeking to have them treated as the priest is treated by some public statement from some civil authority. It seems, then, that our citizens generally consider that the present system in our society for dealing with those accused of child sexual abuse is working well and so is respectful of the complainant’s right to be protected from sexual abuse and the respondent’s right to his/her reputation and good name. In addition, no one is claiming that the state authorities are being secretive or are engaged in any sort of cover-up.
Thus, it is judged necessary and sufficient that the accused citizen step aside from his/her work with children, remain out of contact with them and so allow the investigation by the statutory authorities to go ahead.
Now given all this, the question arises logically and urgently: why is the accused priest made an exception to this universal practice by his own Bishop? What compelling reason or reasons has the Bishop got that pushes him to go public and risk the priest’s reputation being forever damaged and perhaps destroyed? Ger Walsh says on this issue,‘I think it is virtually impossible in these circumstances for anyone to shake off the fact that the allegation was made public.’
Of course the Church has a right to make its own rules on this as on other matters that concern it, whatever others may do. But the question still remains: why do Bishops think it necessary or wise to go public with the accusation against their priests in this case only?
From the experience in our society just mentioned it is hard to imagine that treating the accused priest like every other accused citizen in relation to child sexual abuse would bring forth cries of ‘cover-up’ or show a desire for unwarranted secrecy on the part of the official church. Bishops today have learned their lesson in this regard and do not wish to hide the fact that some of their priests may have indulged in child sexual abuse. Hence, treating their accused priests like other similarly accused citizens is highly unlikely to be criticised on grounds of excessive secrecy or as a cover-up. And if my experience here in Ireland is anything to go by, the great majority of people in our country, priests and lay people, wish accused priests to be treated like all other citizens in this matter of child sexual abuse. The present system where the Bishop or his deputy goes public about the accusation against his priest is widely condemned as unfair and unjust and in danger of doing irreparable damage to the accused priest’s reputation.
Mr Mooneyalso explained: ‘The fact is that priests step aside all the time, because of infirmity, illness, a sabbatical, family reasons, without ever having the need to explicitly express or justify the reason. The compelling argument for privacy is the protection of the priest’s reputation at all costs.’
The question, then remains: why does the Bishop make the public statement about the existence of an allegation against a particular priest?
It is by no means clear or convincingly argued that this is a correct course of action and that it is not a manner of acting that is liable to do serious harm to the accused priest’s good name and reputation without any necessity or compelling reason for doing so. One suggestion in this context is made by journalist Seán Nolan: ‘It seems to me that in trying to atone for past mistakes where priests against whom an allegation of child sexual abuse was made were simply transferred rather than stood down to allow the allegation to be investigated, the Church has now swung too far in the opposite direction.’
One feels compelled to ask here: is this too a case of the official church seeking to cover itself at the expense of the accused priest?
None of this is to deny, of course, that the accused priest should step aside as any other accused person should in similar circumstances, and allow the statutory authorities to conduct their investigation, thus providing the requisite safeguard and protection for the complainant and other children.
The Public Statement: to whose benefit?
As already indicated, it is certainly not to the advantage or benefit of the accused priest that he is publicly exposed as accused of child sexual abuse. It will be traumatic for him to hear that he has been accused of child sexual abuse and as a result have to step aside. It will be doubly traumatic for him that these facts are put in the public domain by the Bishop, thus opening the way for the media to spread the news even more widely. The public nature of the Bishop’s statement will very likely impugn the priest’s good name and put him in a situation where he will be assumed by many to be guilty and so will have to prove his innocence – if he can. This clearly creates a grave danger that the priest’s rights in natural justice will be infringed and solely because the Bishop took the quite unnecessary step of going public.
The Bishop’s public announcement that the priest or a priest in the parish is to step aside because of an allegation of child sexual abuse will be a shock to the parishioners, a shock that will be magnified by the fact of the Bishop or his deputy coming to the parish to make the public statement. As Seán Nolan says, ‘…having the Bishop arrive in a parish to make a statement creates an expectation that something is seriously wrong.’ As a matter of fact, in practice Bishops only make announcements like this in parishes when it is clerical sex abuse that is in question. Hence, the very appearance of the Bishop (or his deputy) during a week-end Mass will itself alert the parishioners to the fact that the allegation against the priest is one of sexual abuse.
Though this episcopal announcement will be a shock to the parish, it is difficult to see that any advantage or benefit to the parishioners derives from the Bishop going public. The parishioners will come to know in very quick time without any such statement that Fr X is no longer ministering in their parish, and as in all similar matters, will soon learn the reason for his departure. This will be the case especially as there will be no effort by anyone to keep the matter secret. Experience shows that, when a priest leaves a parish for any reason, e.g., health, sabbatical, retirement, moving to another parish, etc., the people will soon become aware of the fact of his leaving and the reason for it – without any public statement by anybody.
It seems clear, then, that no significant advantage or benefit comes to the parishioners from the Bishop’s public statement and it is not at all necessary or helpful from their viewpoint.
We may ask, also, whether the making of the public statement brings the Bishop and the church institution any benefit or advantage? The Bishop may say that he hates the thought of going to a parish to announce that the priest must step aside because of an allegation against him. That’s understandable but largely irrelevant here. The real point is: does making the statement have advantages or benefits for the Bishop as an institutional figure and for the diocese as an institutional reality, that is, for the church as institution? One can think of one such benefit: it shows clearly that the Bishop and the church as institution have learned that secrecy in dealing with clerical sexual abuse nowadays is counter-productive and simply wrong. But there may be another related benefit here for the Bishop: he makes it doubly clear by his statement to all and especially to the media, who were originally instrumental in revealing the cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse in the past, that now the church is being fully up front and open in this matter.
Beyond this, however, one is at a loss to see the necessity of the public statement or even its value or any benefits accruing from it. In fact, as already noted, very many people and some in the media think that here the church institution has gone too far with no real advantage or benefit to anyone but to the grave disadvantage of the accused priest and his natural rights.
Seán Nolan states: ‘…once a Bishop informs a congregation that a priest is being removed because of an allegation of child sexual abuse, the whole concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is stood on its head and it becomes a case of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ – which is quite a different situation altogether and almost impossible to prove. It follows then that the right of the priest to natural justice has been denied him’.
Finally and most importantly, we may ask: Does the making of the public statement bring any benefits to the complainant and to children generally in regard to safeguarding them from sex abuse by the cleric who has been accused?
Interim Guidance No.9(c) says that the making of a public statement is a matter of necessity, where the respondent [the accused priest] remains in the parish and that this is part of a risk management plan. But earlier in No.9 (b) the Interim Guidance document declares that: ‘consideration may be given to allowing the respondent to continue to reside in his/her current accommodation if it is perceived not to present any risk to children…’[emphasis added]. Clearly then, a priest who is accused of child sexual abuse will only be left in residence in the parochial house in his parish when it has been ascertained that he presents no risk to children. Where, then, one has to ask, is the risk that needs to be managed and which makes a public statement by the Bishop necessary? In this case this document itself says there will be no risk to children, if the priest is left in his parish house. Hence, there will be no necessity for the Bishop to go public about the priest and the allegation of child sexual abuse against him.
If then, it is not necessary to make a public statement when the priest is no longer living in his parish or has been allowed to stay, because he presents no risk to children, could it be said to be wise or helpful to do so? From the viewpoint of the complainant and other children it is difficult to see any benefit for them in such a public statement. The priest will be gone from the parish or will present no risk to children, the parishioners will come to know the situation very quickly by the grapevine and they will be well placed to ensure that their children are safe.
To take a similar case: if, for example, a teacher is accused of child sexual abuse and is stepped aside but remains in his home in the parish where he was teaching, one does not hear of any public clamour for his removal out of the parish. And since the people of the parish will very soon come to know why he has stepped aside, there will be very little risk to the children of the area from this man, and hence, no need at all for a public statement from any official of church or state to alert people to his presence and his proclivities. If someone did make such a public statement, he/she might find him/herself in serious danger of being sued for violation of natural justice.
Mr Ger Walsh has this to say on this matter in relation to priests: ‘I don’t think any public statement needs to be made at all. A temporary replacement could be put in place with no major announcement other than saying that ‘Fr X’ is on leave of absence or whatever. The key thing is that people are not entitled to know that an allegation has been made. The only thing which needs to be done is to remove the accused person from a position where they might have access to children or be given an opportunity to re-offend.’
Given all this, there would appear to be no grounds at all for the Bishop to make a public statement in connection with such a priest stepping aside, since there would seem to be minimal risk of his offending in his altered circumstances, above all if the allegation is historical and comes from, say, 30 years previously, with the clear implication that this priest has not been accused of any child sexual abuse in the long span of time since. In addition, he has to be assumed to be innocent until he is proved guilty and at this early stage there is no evidence against him at all.
To make a public statement about such a priest with such little benefit to anyone and such little risk to children but with the strong likelihood of significant damage to that priest’s reputation would seem to be quite unjustified. It would seem to serve, not so much to warn the vulnerable of a real danger as to give the Bishop and the church as institution the feeling that it is now acting to such a high standard of child protection that, even where there is no risk to children, as the official document just quoted indicates, it is justified to run a much greater risk to the accused and now publicly shamed priest’s reputation and good name, in addition to the fact that he has been deprived of his ministry and likely also his home, very probably never to return to either.
The core message of this article should be quite clear. Of course children must be protected and safeguarded as fully as possible and this is paramount. But in the process church officials are morally bound to avoid any steps or procedures that unnecessarily damage the good name of the accused priest and go a good way to putting him in the position of having to prove he is innocent rather than preserving the basic principle of natural justice: he is innocent till he is proved to be guilty. Making a public statement that such a priest is stepping aside and announcing the reason for so vacating his ministerial position has to be classed as unnecessary, unhelpful and gravely prejudicial to the natural rights of the accused priest, as it would be in relation to any citizen similarly accused.
In a word, the Bishops of Ireland must discontinue this practice immediately out of respect for the rights in natural justice of the accused priests, while also ensuring that their system of child safeguarding remains in place as a necessary procedure to help prevent the heinous crime of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy.