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.


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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    This should have been said and vigorously argued 20 years ago.

  2. Andrew Harper says:

    This is not true – if a teacher or swimming coach has allegations made against them then they are suspended. It is quite common also for a medical professional or Garda to be suspended pending investigations into alleged misdemeanours – I do not think any other way would work. For example if the accused priest was guilty then how would this effect his victims who could still be in the congregation, what happens if he is allowed to remain in position and continues to abuse. The best way must be for him to wait for the outcome and then if the allegations are false to sue those responsible for making them in the first place.

  3. Dear Fr James,
    Hear Hear!
    Dare I suggest that this letter might well be sent to the Irish Times, whose readership must be considerably wider than the Irish Catholic. Coming from a man of your standing, I feel it would carry considerable weight even with the rather partisan public, who seem to feel that any defence of priests by priests is “clericalism”.
    We appear to be the only group for whom any allegation in this area constitutes punishable guilt. Some serious criterion of “verisimilitude” at the very least should be required, before a man be publicly set aside.

  4. No, suspension from duties is not “punitive action.” Suspension is a prudent precaution in any matter that poses a risk of child endangerment. It does not presume guilt. Suspension provides an interim measure of security for an alleged victim and potential victims while the accused awaits a trial to determine guilt or innocence.
    There are many reasons besides criminal accusations for removing a person from assigned duties– illness, either physical or mental, that affects job performance, re-training when work procedures change, re-tooling of the workplace, etc. And as Andrew Harper points out, others, not only priests, are subject to suspension when faced with child abuse charges. These are inconvenient, often unfair, but are not punishment per se.
    Every citizen, child or adult, has an equal right to justice, and an accused person has a right to speedy investigation and trial so that, if unjustly accused, he or she can have freedom quickly restored. “[P]ublication of allegations pending investigation” should be greatly restrained both because the alleged victim is a child and because publication of details can prejudice jurors before a case comes to trial. There are ways of dealing with abuses by the media. But in any case, publication is no reason for not suspending (during investigation and trial) a person accused of sexually violating a child. Preventing sex crimes against children simply IS more important than protecting the reputation of the accused.
    We all pay some price for the “innocent until proven guilty” principle, and some pay more than others. Some of us live in neighborhoods with known criminals, drug dealers, gangsters, whom police cannot prosecute for lack of evidence. A person who is falsely accused also sacrifices heavily, through suspension or temporary loss of freedom, through the annoyance and expense of investigation and trial, loss of peace of mind, even loss of the trust of a community. These consequences are unfair, just as the price we pay for “innocent until proven guilty” is unfairly distributed. But none of these consequences is punishment; none of these consequences represents a judgment of “guilty as charged.” A fair trial vindicates a falsely accused person and restores freedom at the least.
    When we are no longer willing to sacrifice for the sake of such principles of justice as “innocent until proven guilty,” then you’ll see true injustice inflicted at the whim of those in power; they can then arrest you simply because they do not like your politics or skin color or accent or celibacy.
    This letter is a complaint, nothing more. It’s not an argument against an injustice; it’s a complaint about having to pay a heavy price *for* justice. Nonetheless, unjustly accused people are entitled to complain, so go ahead and complain. You have my sympathy, but don’t imagine you have a winning argument against suspension of anyone accused of sexually abusing a child.

  5. John OLeary says:

    I am a member of the catholic faith, I don’t go to mass due to the awful lot of things that are currently wrong in the church. I was persuaded by a member of my family that the church had changed and one thing that was mentioned was this website.
    I typed in assosiationofcatholicpriests and waited in hope. First thing that loads up is this article.
    I’m more than dissapointed.
    There appears to be an ‘us and them’ with quotes like “partisan public”. You’re speaking about the real church, the people who go about their everyday lives trying to live in the way of Christ rather than just preaching it.
    There is still this “poor us” sentiment among priests and bishops rather than “poor children”.
    Lets hear the facts one more time
    1. There are good and bad at all levels of the church
    2. Some of the bad raped and physicially and sexually abused children
    3. A high proportion of the good covered up the misdeeds of the bad in order to protect the church.
    4. In doing so they have caused a near fatal blow to the church
    5. The church has consistently and systematically tried to deny that they really had any great knowledge of this…even though they did
    6. The church will not survive unless it changes. And it’s not.
    I came onto this site in hope to see priests stand up and live the life of Christ. Be the moral leaders they were meant to be. Stand up to their masters and say “Not in my name”. Tell the truth, Stop the cover-up, Live the moral laws that you say you stand for, Don’t be a part of the flock, rather be the shepherd to lead the flock.
    Until you all as priests do this, you will not have a following in this country.

  6. I am pleased to read John O’Leary’s direct language about the attitude implicit in James Good’s letter. I hope John has read some of the other articles published on this site, by Fr. Brendan Hoban and others. I hope he has found some of the discussions encouraging. As I read the signs of the times, for a reform movement to succeed, discussion and debate such as this forum provides are necessary to challenge atavistic attitudes where they are entrenched and to refine the reasoning on both sides of issues. Truth is most likely to emerge for us mortals in this process of sifting and winnowing. So views on both sides, or all sides, of issues should be welcome, and I find John’s view like a breath of fresh Irish air.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    I visited my alma mater last night and received the anthology of the last 50 years of Irish moral theology from its editor Enda McDonagh. It contains a very helpful and illuminating article on the sex abuse scandal from Maire Keenan — mandatory reading!

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