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Quid est veritas?

"Thus, I fell among men, delirious in their pride, carnal and voluble...their heart was empty of truth. Still, they cried "Truth, Truth" and were forever speaking the word to me."

With these words, St Augustine begins Chapter 6 of his "Confessions". On the eve of his feast, the sentiments may resonate in a number of quarters in the Church. As the day has progressed, various news agencies have run with the story around the Vigano "Testament"; at least in part overshadowing the recent papal visit to Ireland.

Whilst observers may question the timing and motivation of the publication, others closer to its subject matter, have adopted more measured, not to say cautious, tones. It has been suggested that the Archbishop's chronology is confused and his recollection imperfect. Given the passage of time, this is, of course, entirely possible. Others have sought to undermine the general credibility of the Testament's author; pointing to what is said to be the absence of any contemporaneous complaint. In this latter respect, it has been suggested that the Papal Nuncio actually endorsed the appointments upon which he now expresses adverse comment; making public statements to that effect at the time.

Whether or not the Vigano 'Testament' is factually accurate is a matter for others. To those with more than a passing familiarity with the law of the Church and its application, the events of the last few days demonstrate in a clear and unequivocal manner, the general acceptance of the presumption of innocence. Indeed, it has been reported that when invited to comment upon the Testament on his return flight to Rome, Pope Francis declined to do so; instead, inviting the journalists to exercise their own mature professional judgment. The legitimate concern not to be drawn into making a public statement when the detail of the Testament had not been fully considered, is entirely prudent. It is a prudence which is not always demonstrated when dealing with the rights and interests of less prominent clergy.

Some 7 years ago, Fr William Richardson conducted a detailed examination of the provenance of the presumption of innocence in Canon Law: "The Presumption of Innocence in Canonical Trials of Clerics Accused of Child Sexual Abuse; An Historical Analysis of the Current Law" (Leuven & Walpole MA, Peeters, 2011). At the time of compiling his work, the presumption of innocence and its role in the protection of those accused or suspected of wrongdoing was, to use a neutral term, not afforded consistent recognition. The reports of the past days indicate that any residual ambiguity on this score has been removed.

It is unclear whether any form of legal process will arise from the "Testament", whether for its author or anyone else. If such a process proves necessary, it will, of course, feature both a burden and standard of proof. The moral certainty required in canon law, is no modest hurdle.

Whether or not Archbishop Vigano is in due course assessed by those exercising judicial competence as a "reliable historian" only time will tell. For the present, it might be thought it is the detail of his narrative which merits a response; not generalised comment as to his character or motivation. As any lawyer experienced in the conduct of litigation will attest, motive has its place, but it is no substitute for evidence. This, at least, admits of no contradiction.

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