23Sep Misjudgment in Boston: Thomas G. Guarino

Sep 20, 2011
Thomas G. Guarino

Recently archbishop of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley published on his archdiocesan website a list of the names ofpriests accused of the sexual abuse of children. Accompanying the list was a letter that carefully explains the rationale for his decision.

Cardinal O’Malley indicates that he is deeply concerned about the tragedy of sexual abuse and hopes to ensure that it is “never repeated in the Church.” He further states that his motivation in publicizing the priests’ names is rooted in a concern for “transparency and healing” and for the “restoration of trust.” At the same time, he acknowledges that there are interests “related to the dueprocess rights and reputations of those accused clergy whose cases have not been fully adjudicated.”

Throughout his letter, the cardinal adduces legitimate concerns that cannot be gainsaid. The sexual abuse of children by priests is a horrendous sin and crime. The episcopal neglect that often attended such abuse is similarly condemnable. And it is precisely these past sins and crimes which impel the cardinal’s actions.

The list published by the archdiocese includes the names of “all clergy of the Archdiocese who have been publicly accused of sexually abusing a child[even] where canonical proceedings remain to be completed.”O’Malley explains that in listing the names of accused priests, he is not relying on the standard of credibility since the meaning of that term is variable. Also included are the names of deceased priests who have already been publicly accused. In a separate list, “the names of accused clergy where the accusations have been found not substantiated . . . if the names of those priests are already in the public domain.”

In publishing these names on the Boston website, O’Malley is hoping for transparency and the removal of every shadow of deception. In a diocese which had previously stood as a model of opacity, such intentions are admirable. Nonetheless, while eschewing deception is a worthy goal, significant problems attend the publication of the recent list.

First, the publication of priests’ names whose canonical proceedings have not been completed courts the danger of rash judgment and detraction. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists such offenses as violations of the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” One is considered guilty of rash judgment if one “even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.” One is guilty of detraction if one “without [an] objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them” (no. 2477).

Parading a man’s name as an accused sexual abuser on a public website of the archdiocese while canonical proceedings remain incomplete seems to draw near to the transgressions noted by the Catechism. It is true that these men have already been publicly accused. But will not listing them on the archdiocesan website inexorably tar these priests’ reputations with the scarlet letter of priest-abuse?

Second, what about the presumption of innocence for accused priests, a right trumpeted in the Dallas Charter (Charter for the Protection of Children and YoungPeople)? Are these words mere obiter dicta, without substance and foundation? Does not the publishing of names of those accused whose cases are still under review constitute a rush to judgment in the public square? Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal on campus rape accusations, Peter Berkowitz asks, “Where are the professors…who will insist clearly and in public that due process is a fundamental component of American political institutions and culture . . . indispensable in a free society to the fair administration of justice? Where are the professors . . . who will stand up and declare that the presumption ofinnocence rightly gives expression to both the belief in the dignity of theindividual and the awareness of human fallibility?” If secular legal processes are deeply concerned with human dignity and the presumption of innocence, how much more carefully should such processes be employed in the Church of Christ?

Third, it has also become a contemporary practice in certain quarters to lionize victims while demonizing victimizers, a practice that can have dangerous results. Everyone remembers the hysterical reaction that followed upon the accusation of rape leveled against members of the Duke University lacrosse team—a charge of which the students were completely exonerated. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, seeks the healing of both the victim and the wrongdoer, with the vilification of neither. Has the recent publication of names in Boston simply followed the popular path of demonizing the alleged wrongdoers—and this because those accused deserve public wrath and scorn?

Finally, the relegation of the listed priests to the court of harsh public opinion can only damage the mutual bonds of respect which ought to exist between a bishop and his priests. The clergy in Boston now know that their reputations may not be guarded by their spiritual father. To many priests and lay Christians, the publication of the recent list will be regarded not as a gesture of transparency on the part of O’Malley, but as a lamentably short-sighted legal and public relations maneuver, showing little care for the reputations of priests.

Everyone understands that the issue of priestly abuse is a sharks’ tank for bishops who are constantly hounded by lawyers, advocacy groups, and the media. And in O’Malley’s defense, it must be remembered that he is the pastor of a local church which may aptly be described as an ecclesiastical Chernobyl, the ground zero of the American abuse crisis. But all bishops should realize that for priests to react cynically toward bishops—in Boston or elsewhere—is only damaging to the Church’s future. Jeopardizing the reputation of Boston’s priests is a high price to pay for short term hosannas from advocacy groups or the media.

Instructive here are the insights of Bl. John Henry Newman. Newman lauded the courage of bishops such as Basil, Athanasius, Gregory and Ambrose for their unwavering commitment to the truth. Reflecting on their lives, he concluded that “truth is the first object of the Christian’s efforts; peace but the second.” I have no doubt that the recent actions in Boston are intended to serve the cause of truth.

But by publicly parading accused men who may very well be innocent, such actionshave the unfortunate appearance of seeking only peace—and at a very heavy price.

Fr. Thomas G. Guarinois professor of theology at Seton Hall University.

12 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    The priests (or where deceased, their relatives) should get together and sue.

  2. Margaret

    Fr. Thomas is generous in his comments about Bishop O’Malley. It appears to me that the Bishop is not interested in truth or peace. He just wants to look good in the eyes of the media. The church cannot demand human rights in totalitarian states while denying it to priests. The bishop might also reflect on how Jesus ate with the tax collecters and sinners who were the pariahs of the day. I believe that people who have sexually abused children are the pariahs of our day. I think Jesus would not have condemned them. Maybe it is time for someone to write on the ground as Christ did when He received the complaint about the woman taken in adultery.


  3. Eddie Finnegan

    Or just maybe, Margaret, it is long past time for someone to start dropping heavy hints about “scandal to little ones” and “great millstones” and “depths of the sea” ?

  4. Fr S


    Jeus DID condemn them and told them that they would be better off in the sea with a millstone around their necks!!

    I also believe he would reserve the same fate for our Bishops who have covered up.

    This problem is crying out to Heaven for justice and your slant on what ‘forgiveness’ is, is way off mark.

  5. Margaret

    Maybe we all quote scripture to suit ourselves. I get a bit nervous when people are crying out for justice about other people’s transgressions. Maybe we should all concentrate on our own. Also, if I disagree with Bishop O’Malley, does this automatically mean that I think that no wrong has been done to people who were sexually abused? I have just been to see the play “The Crucible”.

  6. Fr S


    I dont think we can really twist that particular scripture quote to suit our own point of view. It seems fairly clear.

    When you consider the damage done to such individuals – many who committed suicide – or whose lives have been utterly ruined, I think Jesus would condemn the perpetrators and those who have covered up.

    Its also clear from many, many gospels that when the person who behaves so wickedly also happens to be an overtly religious person, Jesus was even more condemning.

  7. Joseph O'Leary

    Bible quotes like the one about millstones are meant to be applied to oneself, not to others. The constant use of it to whip up even more rage and hatred against the demonized child abusers is indeed troubling.

    In the present case, we are dealing not with proven and serious wrongdoing but with allegations, and it seems to me that the archbishop has proceeded with very little concern for the rights of those against whom the allegations were made. “The Crucible” is quite relevant.

  8. Eddie Finnegan

    Joseph, my trading Jesus quotes with Margaret above was not to suggest disagreement with her main criticism of Cardinal O’Malley’s indiscriminate listings of all who have had complaints made against them. Those listings of even those who have been cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to ministry seem to me to hint at “no smoke without fire”. I’m sure your earlier post is correct, that (many of) those on Seán O’Malley’s lists may have reason to sue. Was his motivation, not so much “to look good in the eyes of the media”, but to put an expanse of clear holy water between his handling of the abuse scandal and that of his predecessor? There’s a limit to the supply of posts of Arch-Priest in Rome’s ancient basilicas.

    But I’m sure there must be a difference between what I think was a perfectly justifiable approach by Msgr Denis O’Callaghan to the pastoral care of priests who have abused children and, on the other hand, the suggestion in Margaret’s first post that we just tell them, ‘Go, and sin no more.’

  9. Margaret

    I was not referring to “go and sin no more”.

  10. Jim Howard

    I have always had problems with a system that allows no redemption. Unquestionably, mistakes have been made by the bishops and those in positions of authority, but if we cease to be a community built on forgiveness, we lose the main message of Jesus.

  11. Fr S


    I’m also for redemption.

    At least 34 Bishops found to be guilty of involvement in child abuse. NO action taken.

    4 Bishops accused of dissent, 4 Bishops sacked.

    Lets share the redemption around, I say.

    The cynic could be forgiven for thinking that there is a certain agenda being followed by the Vatican at the moment.

  12. Margaret

    RTE found guilty and no action taken. Just the usual formula of an apology. The media and the church are both institutions that self protect. We make our own redemption

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