Since the explosion of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the United States there have been well more than 10,000 documented accusations of abuse. To this day, hundreds more accusations are made per year, though nearly all the new allegations concern decades-old incidents.
Here’s a difficult question: How many of those allegations are false?
There’s no real way of knowing, of course.
But it seems indisputable that there are some, motivated by spite or the prospect of financial gain. That was brought into stark relief last month when a married man, apparently upset at being denied a parish ministry position, publicly accused Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik of forcibly kissing him in a Catholic high school chapel in the 1980s.
Most false accusations against priests are not cleared up as neatly, quickly and completely as the one aimed at Bishop Zubik.
Bishop Zubik’s response appears to have been careful execution of the procedures put in place by the U.S. bishops in Dallas in 2003, and by dioceses since then.
And then, before the accusation reached the mainstream media, he held a press conference to inform the press about it and denounce it as “false, offensive and outrageous.”
Fortunately for Bishop Zubik, the civil authorities appear to agree. “I’ve never heard of a more convoluted series of stories in order to justify these allegations against the bishop,” said Anthony J. Berosh, the local district attorney.
But as crazy as the allegations might have seemed, they seem to have shaken the bishop, who said that during the weeks between the first time he learned of the accusation and his press conference “there hasn’t been a day ... when I haven’t felt like I was in front of a train and the fear of how is this going to become public and what is going to happen.”
But his relief at finally airing the accusation also seemed to embolden him to fighting its injustice. “I won’t let anyone make the priest’s collar a bull’s eye,” he told the National Catholic Register. “Somehow, because we are priests, they think we’ll sit back and let someone steamroll us.”
That sense that priests today have become targets of vendettas and treasure-seekers is widespread among clerics. In the frequently asked question section of the website of the U.S. bishops, the child protection office acknowledges, “Our innocent clergy seem to be taking the brunt of the crisis.”
Worse, most false accusations against priests are not cleared up as neatly, quickly and completely as the one aimed at Bishop Zubik. Too often falsely accused priests languish for years in juridical limbo, their reputations damaged irreparably, without the financial, legal and even moral support of the dioceses they serve. In some cases, dioceses prefer to settle abuse lawsuits, even when the evidence is thin, to avoid huge legal fees or the public relations nightmare of appearing to be heartless toward real abuse victims.
Are there any solutions? One option is for civil authorities to prosecute those who make patently false accusations of abuse. That might make some alleged victims think twice. But therein lies another problem; doing so might dissuade authentic victims from stepping forward, which is a risk many would argue is not worth taking.
Another, though, is for Church authorities to put themselves more often in their priests’ shoes. Clearly, clerics who do wrong must face the consequences. But for the sake especially of the falsely accused, Church procedures and investigations should be swift, professional, transparent and thorough, and guided by the presumption that the priest is innocent until proven guilty.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor