Abuse survivors and the value of belief

The report on Feb. 5 that Pope Francis, despite denying that he’d seen evidence put forward by victims, had in fact received a letter alleging the complicity of a Chilean bishop in clergy sexual abuse has created perhaps the most serious controversy to date in a pontificate that will observe its fifth anniversary in March.

The case of Bishop Juan Barros, whom Francis transferred to the Diocese of Osorno in 2015, involves accusations that the bishop was aware of abuse perpetrated by his mentor, Father Fernando Karadima. The letter the pope is reported to have received in 2015 from Juan Carlos Cruz, now a resident of Philadelphia, says the future bishop even witnessed Father Karadima abusing him.

As Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top investigator of abuse claims, completes interviews in Chile and the United States, looking into this case anew, the episode raises questions of how survivors of abuse are treated by the Church — or expect to be treated — when they come forward, as well as the tensions between due process for the accused and zero tolerance of abuse.

The issue of belief

During his January visit to Chile, Pope Francis made waves by publicly calling accusations against Bishop Barros “calumny.” This statement would suggest that, if the pope read the letter from Cruz and yet still asserted not seeing “evidence,” then he simply chose not to believe the letter.

This example from the head of the Catholic Church is problematic for those working to rid the Church of abuse. It undercuts the environment the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002, is trying to foster.

A climate of trust “is the first step in getting those abused to come forward,” Mary Jane Doerr, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, told Our Sunday Visitor. Doerr sees the wider culture shift from skepticism to belief as the default response to people alleging abuse, reflected in the #MeToo movement and elsewhere, as a positive sign for those who have been abused.

“Society is seeing again that sexual abuse is not about the feared stranger or confined to the Catholic priesthood. It’s about people from all cultures and social and economic levels who use children, women and men for their own benefit, their own sexual gratification,” she said. “If children are trained to recognize, resist and report sexual abuse, we can help make it less likely this will happen. And if adults know the warning signs, sexual abuse can be prevented before someone is hurt.”

But obstacles, such as shame and misplaced guilt, still keep survivors from coming forward, often for decades.

“It can be the survivor didn’t understand it was abuse until years later. Then, as they look back they are humiliated that they were tricked. It is hard to come forward and say I just realized it was abuse,” Doerr said. “Survivors have said they had to wait until their mother died, as it would destroy her to know a close family friend had done something so terrible.”

On exoneration

The pope publicly raising the possibility of false accusations does raise the question of what happens in the event of such an accusation and how common it may be. The United States saw two cases in the news recently.

In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Father Xiu Hui “Joseph” Jiang in recent years twice faced sex abuse allegations. Both times the allegations proved to be unfounded and charges were dropped. He even received an apology from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) for making false statements about him.

In the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Bishop David L. Ricken in September 2017 announced that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Vatican City had exonerated Father Paul Radetski of allegations that he had sexually abused a minor. The diocese subsequently restored Father Radetski to ministry.

Since the adoption of the Charter in 2002, the Church in the United States has made strides in improving its handling of cases, though victims groups say the bishops in general need to be more transparent, especially about past credible allegations.

For priests who are accused, the Charter contains norms intended to ensure their rights to due process under canon law. Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, told OSV that an accused priest should be encouraged to retain canon and civil lawyers, and that he should be notified quickly of the results of the diocesan investigation. Some dioceses help their priests with acquiring attorneys.

“We try to respect the rights of all involved. That’s our main priority,” said Father Mike Boehm, the vicar for clergy and the vicar general for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “Then we try to do our best and due diligence in carrying out an investigation to get to the truth of the matter and then deal with things accordingly.”

Father Boehm said the archdiocese will provide a place to stay for the accused priest, away from the parish where he was assigned. If the priest is exonerated — either through the civil courts or the archdiocese’s own investigation — he can return to his previous assignment.

Sandra Price, director of the safe environment program for the archdiocese, told OSV that the public is notified of an exonerated priest’s status in several ways, depending on the situation. In some instances, a letter is read to the congregation. The archdiocese also issued several public statements updating Father Jiang’s status as his case progressed through the courts.

Toward true accountability

Joe Maher, the co-founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization that assists priests in crisis, told OSV that he is “confident” in estimating that there are more than 1,000 priests in the United States who were exonerated of abuse charges but never returned to ministry because their bishops believed their presence would cause a scandal. Victim advocates, diocesan officials and people like Maher who work with clergy members all agree that every allegation of sex abuse has to be seriously investigated and victims protected, especially given the Church’s track record in past decades where credibly accused priests were quietly reassigned to other parishes.

“I’m a husband and father, and how the heck are you ever going to explain to me that you took a priest that you knew there was a problem with and put him in a different parish?” Maher said.

Terry McKiernan, a founder of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks sex abuse in the Church, told OSV that he does not believe that false allegations are commonly made.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

“It’s a tough one. If a priest is innocent, he has every right to defend himself, and yet there are cases in which a priest has claimed he’s innocent, and then ultimately confessed,” McKiernan said. Every case of a priest accused of sex abuse, McKiernan said, is complicated and requires extensive work to investigate. If there are cases where the allegations are not true, McKiernan said it is important for the public to know. “My concern is that we find out what really happened,” he said.

Doerr said that, generally, less than four percent of allegations are not true. “Children lie to get out of trouble, not into trouble. And unfortunately, saying someone abused them causes a lot of upset and turmoil for the child.” She added an insight she once heard from a mental health professional: “Children lie every day about sexual abuse. They lie to protect the abuser.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.