Burning injustices rest on our consciences, and will continue to burn us until we correct them. I had dinner the other night with a marvelous priest, who started out our dinner by having the little children who were with us recite together (partly in song) the blessing before meals. They loved doing it. Loved the sound of it. Loved the solemnity. Loved the fun.
I did not know until well along in the meal, almost at the very end, that this good priest – so well informed about so many matters of faith, so genial, and so patently good-hearted and faithful – had been falsely accused of sexual molestation eight years ago. He was forced to leave the ministry (an accusation these days is enough to do this – a horrible scandal in itself). His accuser died of a cocaine overdose in his mother’s house, but not before exonerating the priest by admitting the falsity of his accusation.
But all that notwithstanding, the bishop in his diocese has not moved – dared? – to reinstate this good man and return him to his proper standing in the priesthood, or even to give a public apology for his unjust treatment. Nor has the press that stirred up the atmosphere of high-tech lynchings revisited his case (and hundreds if not thousands of others) to clear them of this horrible wrong.
Very few raw accusations that have emerged since the priestly abuse crisis erupted were ever subject to due process and full discovery and an open trial.
In America, citizens have a right to their innocence until proven guilty. This good man was never given a hearing. He is still being punished – to the very the core of his being and in his very reason for existence – because of a false accusation and that alone. Further, it is an accusation that has been withdrawn by the accuser, and apologized for by his family: “Billy [name changed] would never have made the accusation if he had been sober.”
To have been treated as non-persons, as non-citizens, is an injustice that cries out to heaven for justice. Yet in addition to the truly evil predators that have been identified and weeded out, this is the fate of a considerable number of innocent Catholic priests in this country today.
I do not understand why the Catholic Church has not fought for a civil process that gives these good men, innocent until proven guilty, fair trials. I do not understand why the American courts do not do this. I do not understand why the American press is not fighting mad about that. I do not understand why the ACLU is not leading this charge – they have a reputation for defending the unpopular victims, the publicly vilified victims.
We all know, of course, that many accused priests have been proven guilty. No doubt, still more deserve to be given their due punishments. The years 1965-1985, give or take, were in clerical dereliction the worst in my memory (including historical memory, going back to the beginning of this Republic). They terribly shamed me and many millions of other Catholics.
But I also know that thousands of the accused have never been given due process. They have been discarded as non-persons. They can hardly comprehend the sudden injustice they have suffered in the Church they love and the country they love. Since birth they have thought themselves safe from that – the kinds of injustices usually thought of as only occurring elsewhere, not in our America. They have been horribly betrayed.
I beg those who have reached the same conclusions I have to act to change the present injustice, to rectify it, to erase it, and to restore to their full standing as human beings, citizens, and men committed to their faith, those who, after due process, are judged not guilty.
They loved that faith in part because of its traditional defense of individual persons from birth to natural death. They loved this country because of its protection of individual rights. They cannot understand how they have been stripped of those basic rights – suddenly, without an outcry on their behalf by the Church, the state, and the public defenders of basic human rights.
Look into it, America. Look into it, Catholic Church. Examine the facts. Punish the proven guilty. But give the innocent the honor that is due them.
They have suffered so much, for so many years. It is a marvel that some still maintain their morale and their hope. Even if we humans do not fulfill our duty to protect them from mendacious accusations, may God bless them and be faithful to them forever.