Michael Novak on “A Different Priestly Scandal”

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From the site of Michael Novak:

A Different Priestly Scandal

By Michael Novak — Sunday, 13 May 2012

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). [One of the most horrible there is.] 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. [Let us hope his wits were so profoundly addled and for long enough, that he didn’t realize what he was doing and, therefore, did not go to hell.]

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 [Liberal newsies as the new Klu Klux Klan.] 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. [Priests barely have he right to Christian burial.] This good man was never given a hearing. [Typical.] He is still being punished – to the very the core of his being and in his very reason for existence[This is not just an emotional statement, or a figure of speech.  Holy Orders place an indelible mark on the soul.] 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 Further, it is an accusation that has been withdrawn by the accuser, and apologized for by his family: “Billy [name changed] would never have made the accusation if he had been sober.”   [For the love of God.]

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.

[NB] 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. [Do you not, truly, not understand, Mr. Novak? Really?]

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 [That might be an exaggeration.] of the accused have never been given due process. They have been discarded as non-persons. [At the hands of their own bishops and dioceses, to whom they are canonically bound, like indentured servants.] They can hardly comprehend the sudden injustice they have suffered in the Church they love and the country they love. [Again, it isn’t just the feckless lack of will within the Church, it is the hatred of the Catholic Church from the establishment itself.] 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.

You might want to check out David F. Pierre Jr.’s book Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, The Fraud, The Stories.

It is available for US readers HERE (Kindle version HERE) and UK readers HERE (Kindle versionHERE).  Need a Kindle?  US HERE and UK HERE.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Biased Media Coverage, Clerical Sexual Abuse, Our Catholic Identity, Priests and Priesthood, The Drill, The future and our choices, The Last Acceptable Prejudice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. chantgirl says:

    What a cruel and terrible fate for anyone to be so falsely accused, but even worse for a priest when it means that he cannot do what he was ordained to do. We should speak up for these priests, truly lepers within our society, who have been ostracized. While we should do whatever we can to support them, I cannot help but wonder if the persectution of the innocent is somehow connected to the absolutely vile crimes perpetrated by the guilty. It must take supernatural grace to deal with being falsely accused of such a heinous crime. While they wait and pray for vindication, may they offer their suffering as a penance for the grotesque crimes committed by the guilty priests. I tremble for the souls of priests who have done such things! When the guilty commit such serious crimes, some of the innocent always seem to be caught unfairly in the crossfire. This trial may make some priests into saints, even if they are unknown to us.

  2. Kathleen10 says:

    I like this article. Mr. Novak sounds sincere. It is entirely possible to not be cognizant of the situation. I often find myself striving to comprehend these situations and how they work. To the relative outsider, it is all pretty mysterious. We take for granted the perpetrators are the ones who are charged, and that’s certainly a good thing. But when someone is falsely charged, that is very nebulous. A false charge still has it’s taint. Is someone, once they have been accused, ever REALLY free of the stigma of the accusation? I don’t think so. As long as people have memories, the accusation will always be “stuck” to that person, the new victim, and some of that is just unavoidable, because it’s part of our collective memory. I don’t recall priests whose diocese have come out strongly to clear their name, certainly the media would want no part of it, so how would the word get out? It’s a heinous situation. Life is so often unfair.

  3. Ray says:

    Actually, Father Z, your friend is in the BEST of company. Our Master was similarly accused. [Thanks… but… I don’t know know who you mean by “our Master”. It can’t be the Lord, for He was not similarly accused. And this isn’t about a friend of mine. Michael Novak wrote that piece. Right?] This isn’t much consolation I’m certain, but we should be able to take some solace from it. I will dedicate my Holy Hour today for your friend. It is a bit ironic that there is no recourse. This–in a Church that is based on forgiveness.

  4. HyacinthClare says:

    Father, I think Ray did mean our Lord. Not because he was accused of child abuse, but because he was accused falsely and crucified, although innocent of any crime.

  5. Athanasius says:

    One of the worst things, is that a Bishop can now begin a process for laicization in Rome without the priest in question even being aware of it until he gets the letter informing him that he has been defrocked. They really should have called the so-called “year of the priest” the year of the shafting of the priest.

  6. gracie says:

    He needs a lawyer.

  7. Could there be an analogy between the apparent indifference of some bishops to the pain suffered by innocent abused children, and their apparent indifference to the pain suffered by innocent accused priests? And perhaps similar motives for the episcopal indifference in both cases?

  8. Cincinnati Priest says:

    Thank you so much for posting this, Father Z. It is a message that needs to be widely disseminated.

    I am always deeply saddened that even the bishops whom I otherwise admire are so paralyzed with fear of public opinion that they give in to exactly what Mr. Novak describes, treating their priests almost as non-persons and non-citizens, as “legal problems”, far from seeing them as the spiritual sons that is their fitting relationship.

    As Bill Donahue points out so well, the problem of clerical abuse has dropped to near zero in recent years; but I fear that this widespread and callous disregard of the welfare and right to a good name of their priests by their bishops has already created a new dynamic of priests no longer being able to see their bishops as spiritual fathers, but as “supervisors” who will throw them under the bus when the time is opportune. (What biological father would even think of treating his own son the way so many bishops are treating their priests).

    This is something that I fear will have repercussions that they will long regret.

    The statements I see them giving in the press (even for example Archbishop Chaput) do a lot to give due regard to the suffering of past victims (as is fitting), but at best give only the most minimal lip service to addressing the needs of their own priests to be protected from false accusation.

    I expect attacks by the secular world, who delight in exploiting the past sins of priests who engaged in evil acts; what I never expected was the lack of courage and compassion on the part of bishops to defend the rights of their own priests, from the Dallas agreement on to the present.

  9. abasham says:

    The big problem with this article is he keeps talking about all these “rights” we have an Americans. That means nothing in the Church. A priest can’t stand up at mass and start preaching homosexual marriage and claim its all dandy because of “free speech.” So I agree that the priest in this story has been treated unjustly, I don’t get at all why Mr. Novak thinks its at all a good idea to get this ridiculous government MORE involved in our processes.

  10. digdigby says:

    “I do not understand why the ACLU is not leading this charge …”

    That’s rich.

  11. jacobi says:

    Personally, I think the Church has badly mishandled the sex abuse crisis – in many ways.

    It is tragic for the victims and abhorrant that even one priest should be guilty, but the Church after all is universal and so inevitably some, including priests and religious, will succumb.

    An important factor is the scale of the abuse and here we see, with regards to this peculiarly typical post-60’s phenomena, other Churches and in particular, secular institutions, have a very much worse record than the Catholic Church. (ref Millar, Blackman, Jenkins).

    But this is never pointed out by Catholic commentators, and the media spotlight continues to fall only on the Church!

  12. Choirmaster says:

    @abasham: Regarding “rights”. I believe Mr. Novak is correct in his assertions about the “rights” of priests. Indeed, when speaking of accused priests, there are more than just the legal rights afforded to any accused under the laws of several states; sadly denied in many documented instances. In the case of priests, they have a great deal of rights also under Canon Law (as I understand it), and those rights–even more regrettably than their civic and secular rights–are also denied.

    So, we’re not necessarily talking about a Constitutional right to “free speech” (to take your example, although many more are equally as valid) as much as we’re talking about the legal right to a fair trial, the benefits of the law equally applied, and the canonical rights these priests have in their dioceses, in the Catholic Church, and mystically as ordained priests. Not to mention the responsibility the Bishop has to protect and care for them, rather than jettisoning them to take their chance in the world.

  13. Choirmaster says:

    abasham said:

    I don’t get at all why Mr. Novak thinks its at all a good idea to get this ridiculous government MORE involved in our processes.

    I don’t think he was implying that the government should become more involved in the processes of the Church, but that the government has a vested interest in Justice, and that it should work towards that end for all citizens, and not just in the case of falsely accused priests (although I do believe that he is implying that falsely accused priests wouldn’t be a bad place to start).

  14. Imrahil says:

    I think the speaking of rights was not meant as speaking of secular government intervention, but just speaking of justice. It is no wonder and not bad that the sense of justice of an American moves along American law.

    Besides, priests do have free speech. With exceptions (such as also exist civilly, in the forbidding of libels, holocaust denial and the like). But in principle they’re no way silenced to give their own Catholic opinion where appropriate.

  15. I’m grateful for Mr. Novak’s column. Sometimes it seems no one cares about this.

    One of the reasons I utterly despise the NCR crowd is precisely because they do NOT care about this.

    SNAP does NOT care.

    To that crowd, every accused priest is guilty until proven innocent–and proof of innocence is–to them–impossible.

    As someone else said, I am not so shocked at worldly hatred of priests. But Catholics who hate (not too strong a word) their priests? It makes me shudder.

  16. chcrix says:

    The rule of law is the rule of law.

    A governmental apparatus that claims the right to lock up individuals indefinitely without charges, engage in activity that constitutes torture, and execute individuals (including citizens) without trial is hardly likely to worry about a few priests facing false charges.

  17. AnnAsher says:

    When decisions are made in fear, bad decisions result; both in handling the guilty and the innocent. Why are our Bishops so cowardly today?

  18. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Yes, what Henry Edwards said.

    This is one subject that makes me really really angry. And all the while, I don’t know of ANY bishop that ever gets punished, defrocked, sent away… This is the most excruciating type of hypocrisy and cowardice. It always calls to my mind the Jesus’ descriptions of Pharisaical behavior, such as ‘they put burdens on people that they themselves do not carry’. [paraphrase] I love our bishops, they are our fathers – but I think this egregious behavior needs to be called out.

    REALLY good article. A subject that needs to be advertised, explained, written in a detailed fashion with examples of all the priests in every diocese that have ‘disappeared’. Even in the better dioceses, mistreatment of innocent priests is rampant. We need names and dates. Otherwise people will never get the full impact of this crime.

    And most Catholics have also been brainwashed into thinking that anybody accused or sent away or in prison is guilty. I know people who are excoriated for helping priests they believe are innocent! People do not understand the breadth and depth of the lack of justice for these men. And I understand why – no one even considers the possibility of such egregious injustice. They have NO IDEA how badly these obedient men are treated. “It doesn’t happen in this country” or “no bishop would ever sink that low”. This is why the stories must be told.

    I do think this situation involves thousands of priests. How many dioceses do we have? How many cowardly bishops do we have? How many decades has this been going on? Yea, it could be thousands. Easy. I know in our ‘good’ diocese, we have at least 40 priests who have “disappeared”. A few ARE nuts. Most are not.

    I wonder, is it LOVE of money? Oh, so paying bills is more important than this? Really? Are some Bishops are so afraid of losing the almighty dollar that they will do ANYthing to avoid the whisper of any accusation to surface by shutting up the priest and sending him off? Lack of trust in God – you protect the innocent and do the right thing, God takes care of the details. Is it image and reputation? Fear of the loss of a good reputation? Ha. God sees what you did.

    In our good diocese those that question our good bishop on this matter, rather than helping us to understand or even listening to WHAT we say, all are viewed as mutinous. Anger and fear is the response. And those that might know, and see the injustice are cowed into silence.

    This subject is excruciating to me.

    I can only hope that the good priests offer up their obedience, silence, and sufferings to the good of us all, for the conversion of sinners. Sometimes God does allow evil to happen for the conversion of a soul somewhere, or even the priest himself. But my heart truly aches for these men.

  19. The Cobbler says:

    “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. [Do you not, truly, not understand, Mr. Novak? Really?]”
    Perhaps it so happens that, to paraphrase River Tam, “He understands, he doesn’t comprehend”?

    “Since birth they have thought themselves safe from that – the kinds of injustices usually thought of as only occurring elsewhere, not in our America.”
    And to quote the rather less intellectual Homer Simpson: “This can’t happen in America! Maybe Ohio, but not in America!”

  20. LaudemGloriae says:

    It certainly makes me heart sick that innocent priests are abandoned by their bishops. There is such a case in my archdiocese. The priest in question was exoneratored in court, but has been “exiled” by the bishop. However, I would not want church affiars influenced by the outrage of a public mob, even when that mob is right. Mobs, public outcry, and inquests are exactly the sort of harrassment the church is receiving by those who would attempt to sway her toward contraception and homosexual marriage.

    So while I share Mr. Novak’s passion for the innocent, and applaud his desire to write about falsely maligned priests, outside forces do not have the authority to tell the church what it will do and I find it worrisome that he would advocate for it.

    I would prefer to see prayer for priests and bishops and polite letters stating that you would welcome Fr. Falsely-Accused’s return to active ministry.

    And I further hope and pray that Mr. Novak’s article does not draw more ire from the bishop upon the priest in question.

  21. Tina in Ashburn says:

    Early in the years when accusations started surfacing, a priest here was falsely accused by parishioners who disliked his outspoken faithful preaching on the commandments of the Church. A very devout good priest. He struggled for a while. New to the whole scenario, the bishop did nothing.

    The priest committed suicide, last seen praying earnestly before the Blessed Sacrament.

    Immediately diocesan action became swift for any complaints, and this previous bishop also developed a very fatherly and kind relationship with our priests.

  22. Giuseppe says:

    1) Henry Edwards is right on the money: Could there be an analogy between the apparent indifference of some bishops to the pain suffered by innocent abused children, and their apparent indifference to the pain suffered by innocent accused priests?
    2) This shouldn’t be too complicated. I think all accusations of priestly sexual abuse should first go to law enforcement authorities to deal with. Is there evidence of a crime? Then handle it through the criminal justice system, with the accused given a lawyer. (Why crimes were handled internally is beyond me.) If a statue of limitations has passed and there is, therefore, no crime, then the priest should be given a hearing in the church. He should have a lawyer. It should be adjudicated in a timely fashion and no one should remain in limbo. Guilty? Offer the guilty party the opportunity to become cloistered and spend the remainder of his life in prayer for the church. If he opts not to do this, then defrock. Someone recants? Then revisit the evidence and re-try.

  23. Cathy says:

    What so seriously bothers me in all of this is the payment of financial settlements. It reeks of invitation to violate the eight commandment, and, if a priest is found innocent after the settlement, it seems an invitation for the diocese to wash their hands of the priest’s suffering at the hands of a money-grubber. I apologize if anyone thinks otherwise, but I think the Dallas Charter was a horrible reaction that further distanced the dioceses from actually dealing with the scandal that was laid before them. In a sense, it literally made priests and children “untouchables” in the Catholic world. Would St. Don Bosco or Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, have been possible in the Catholic world today? [That is a really good question.]

  24. Son of Trypho says:

    What I found tragic was the fact that the fellow probably suggested that he was abused by the priest purely because it provided an excuse for his addiction and shifted the onus of responsibility from himself to another.

    Although many are deeply sceptical, I would suggest the priest approach the ACLU and ask them to take up his case – he might get a positive response.

  25. Gail F says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for reposting this excellent piece. As far as the ACLU goes, I know what Mr. Novak means! He is frustrated that they don’t do what they say they do — any more than any of the parties he mentions do what they ought to do. And as a Church we don’t seem to care. Men’s lives have been ruined, good and faithful men. Several years ago in my Archdiocese, an elderly priest was removed from ministry because of accusations (one of several men, I might add). He was upwards of 80, and the accusations were many decades old. He vigorously denied them, but of course there was no way to prove anything — many of the witnesses, etc., were dead. Nothing was ever done, although he protested his innocence until he died. Where is the justice in that??? It made me furious. It makes me furious. I have no idea whether or not he was guilty, but surely a just Church and a just society would not stand for that.

    There are, of course, all sorts of extenuating circumstances. Our then-Archbishop was one of the first to look into these allegations, and what good did it do him? When the big wave hit, years after he first dealt with the issue, everything he did to fix things was attacked and denounced. He had taken men out of active ministry and assigned them to the equivalent of desk jobs — to keep an eye on them — and he had crazed SNAP types practically demanding their heads.

    How is more injustice ever a solution to injustice? It’s NOT RIGHT. The bishops took bad advice from the professionals (psychologists, etc.) decades ago, and then they turned around and took bad advice from lawyers. Maybe it was all they could do, I don’t know. But when we got the word that to work at your own child’s school dishing out creamed corn — or any other volunteer duty when children are present — we had to be fingerprinted like criminals, I refused to do it for years. How is treating every single Catholic as if he or she is an uncaught child molester the action of a CHURCH? Moreover, it’s fabulously expensive and ineffective (if one is a child molester who’s gotten away with it, fingerprints won’t turn up anything). It’s unjust all the way around, and we should not stand for it.

  26. Supertradmum says:

    I am sorry that my old diocese, now infamous because of the Voris reference on another posting here, had many real abusers and went bankrupt. However, one priest was falsely accused and he was not accepted in the parish, my parents’ parish, as the pp, because of the false accusation. It was horrible. He was exonerated fully and yet, his name tarnished.

    God help those who falsely accuse. This is an evil of the times.

  27. Dad of Six says:

    There is a great organization to assist accused priests – Opus Bono Sacerdotii. You can find them at: http://www.opusbono.org/

    Help them with a contribution if you can.

  28. robtbrown says:

    Henry Edwards says:

    Could there be an analogy between the apparent indifference of some bishops to the pain suffered by innocent abused children, and their apparent indifference to the pain suffered by innocent accused priests? And perhaps similar motives for the episcopal indifference in both cases?

    Yes, it’s called shallow careerism.

  29. Tina:

    Your comment about criticism directed at those who help priests under suspicion raises another issue: the extent to which we are afflicted by the sin of wrath in these days.

    Providing help to anyone accused of a crime, even if guilty, should not be an issue.

    Our Lord made visiting those in prison one of the measures of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25); where do people get the idea he only meant those who were unjustly imprisoned?

  30. Sixupman says:

    I obtained a copy of Pierre’s and after reading it loaned [probably gave] the same to a diocesan [UK] priest friend. He has been horrified by its contents.

  31. Cincinnati Priest says:

    Since many of the lay faithful don’t pay much attention to this issue (understandably, it doesn’t affect many of them directly), I like to put this in perspective by making an analogy, and show why this is such a grave injustice:

    Imagine that those of you who are parents could be accused (anonymously, without the right to face your accuser) of abusive parenting, Further imagine that the only standard your anonymous accuser needed was that the accusation was “credible” (not patently false on its face). Further imagine that, while this was being investigated, your children were taken away from you for an indefinite period of time that could drag on for years and years, at the whim of authorities who didn’t even know you. Further imagine that your name was in the newspapers for months on end as an (accused) abusive parent, planting the idea in everyone’s head that in fact you *are* an abusive parent. Further imagine that, if the accusation proved false, you had essentially no recourse against the false accuser (whose name you still would not know) and that, every one of your friends and neighbors knew that you had been accused of abusive parenting, and that you were expected to return to family life as if nothing had happened.

    Not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea. Obviously, there would be great public outrage if the courts did this to *any* parent, let alone made it a systemic part of their process.

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