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Post-Truth responsibility?

February 10, 2018

Each year the editors of the Oxford English dictionary conduct a detailed survey, their purpose: to identify those words which have entered into usage with sufficient prominence to merit inclusion in the dictionary itself. In 2016, their labours yielded the term: "post-truth". It has been defined it as follows: "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief".  The notion that objective (and presumably verifiable) facts are considered 'less influential' than emotional conviction appears itself to be exemplified in the old adage: "never let the facts get in the way of a good story". In our present times, the popular inclination to seemingly proceed upon this basis is so commonly encountered that we no longer speak of people as having lied, or, having provided incredible testimony. Instead, we hear terms such as 'unreliable historian', 'selective narrator' and more infamously: 'being economic with the truth'.  Social acceptance of terms such as these not only symptomatic of a rejection of the moral imperative for truth but, at one and the same time, removes the responsibility and/or accountability not to illegitimately harm the reputation of another.  A person's reputation is a fragile thing. In most common law countries, there is a recognition that false and unjustified statements may cause a person to be condemned in the court of public opinion, shunned and ultimately: ostracised.  Calumny is, of course,  the making of false and defamatory statements about someone in order to damage their reputation.  It is a matter of record that the the Holy Father  - Pope Francis- had long before his trip to Chile, spoken of 'calumny' in robust terms.  It is right that he should do so. Those who advance allegations of serious misconduct against another must recognise that the accused has certain fundamental rights. These include the presumption of innocence, and more fundamentally, the expectation that there should be cogent, admissible evidence if the allegation is to be upheld by means of legal proceedings. Recognition of these rights ensures not only the adequate protection of those who are accused, but serves to engender confidence in the legal system and the determinations it produces.

Within any organisation, those who have been subjected to harm must be given a voice, listened to, protected and given access to justice. However, no matter how serious the allegation, one must not lose sight of the fact that the complainant has a vital role to play in making good his allegation. This is a responsibility and, in many cases, a truly heavy burden. Nonetheless, he must not be lulled into the belief that the burden is upon the accused to establish his innocence. Canon 220 of the Code of Canon Law addresses both the right to privacy and the right to a good name; whilst canon 1608 makes clear that moral certainty is the prerequisite to any determination or sentence. Taken together, these canons remind us that no one has the right to illegitimately harm the reputation of another and further, that all allegations must necessarily be the subject of judicial scrutiny. Before we succumb to the temptation of dismissing these aspects of the universal law of the Church as 'club rules', it is perhaps worth bearing in mind that the same presumption of innocence is also to be found in Art 6 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and that Art 6(3)(d) ECHR declares the right of the accused to have to have those who testify against him examined. Taken together, these principles serve to affirm that if both the rights of accuser and accused are to be respected and accommodated, the scrutiny of allegations ought to be left to the relevant legal system. It is only by this means that public confidence in what is and remains a trial process can be maintained. 

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