The conviction of Carl Beech in the United Kingdom has, it would appear, unleashed renewed interest in the preparedness of certain police and other government agencies to presume the veracity of complaints; conferring to the complainant the status of 'victim' long before any judicial determination. This willingness has prompted a number of expert commentators (including Sir Richard Henriques -a former High Court Judge well seasoned in the administration of justice) to call for the practice to be changed. Sir Richard, like others, has instead recommended that the term 'complainant' be preserved. The basis for his doing so, like other commentators, comes in the form of the presumption of innocence. For centuries, the western legal tradition has proceeded upon the fundamental premise that 'he who asserts must prove.' This has fuelled the maintenance of the jealously guarded presumption of innocence.
In recent years, however, these principles have been honoured more in the breach than the observance. The case of Carl Beech places beyond doubt the very real, lasting and, indeed, one might say, irreparable, harm which is caused when assumptions are allowed to hold sway.
Within the faith communities, there has undoubtedly been victims of abuse. There have also been secondary victims; including those who have been falsely accused of serious wrongdoing. Their lives (and those with whom they are connected) changed beyond recognition. Despite instances of profound and lasting injustice, such cases are not mentioned, discussed, or considered. In short, it would appear that since such cases cannot be reconciled with the presumption of guilt, they are simply left out of account. Here, then is a climate in which the exonerated accused is the 'one who got away'. Similarly, members of the same profession are perceived as 'accused in waiting'.
In a unique study, Dr Barry O Sullivan (himself a Catholic priest) invited priests and former diocesan bishops to participate in what might be called 'difficult conversations'. These were interviews intended to provide an opportunity for those priests who were not accused, to share their own experiences of priesthood in the post-abuse era. His work (The Burden of Betrayal, Gracewing, 2018) provides a surprisingly positive affirmation of priesthood in the face of considerable personal sacrifice and a sense of collective condemnation.
Dr O Sullivan would appear to be in good company. In the course of a Letter to Priests issued by Pope Francis today, he speaks directly to those brother priests who serve 'in the trenches'. He observes:
"Some time ago, I shared with the Italian bishops my worry that, in more than a few places, our priests feel themselves attached and blamed for crimes they did not commit, I mentioned that priests need to find in their bishops an older brother and father who reassures them in these difficult times, encouraging and supporting them along the way..."
Having adverted to the Church's commitment to combat abuse of any kind, Pope Francis continues:
"[I]n these times of turbulence, shame and pain, you demonstrate that you joyfully put your lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel...."
Thereafter, the letter expresses both recognition and gratitude for the continued commitment of those priests who have- despite the odds- laboured in the vineyard.
For many, the letter will be received as a welcome development; a recognition that whilst they have neither caused nor contributed to the abuse crisis, they have suffered its consequences on a regular basis. In this respect, it is necessary to resist any inclination to reduce their difficulties to the level of concepts. Being spat at, verbally abused, hailed as a sex-offender, viewed with suspicion, prey to false accusation and indeed, excluded from areas of pastoral activity. These are realities. So too, is the fact that there is within the church, those who would wish to capitalise upon the present difficulties; doing so in a manner which promotes a revision of the Church's theological understanding of priesthood itself. Such calls are either expressly or implicitly advanced upon the basis that the gift of priesthood is itself defective.
As the complainant-v-victim issue has demonstrated, labels involve classification and characterisation. Misapplied, they can also result in false-identification. Pope Francis' letter to his brother priests (a greeting repeatedly adopted by St John Paul II) makes considerable mention of the Curé D'Ars: St Jean-Marie Baptiste Vianney. In his catechesis, the Curé is reported to have instructed:
"What is a priest! A man who holds the place of God – a man who is invested with all the powers of God. “Go,” said Our Lord to the priest; “as My Father sent Me, I send you. All power has been given Me in Heaven and on earth. Go then, teach all nations…. He who listens to you, listens to Me; he who despises you despises Me.”
"The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the Sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you. After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts. If the missionary Father and I were to go away, you would say, “What can we do in this church? there is no Mass; Our Lord is no longer there: we may as well pray at home.” When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion."
According to the patron of diocesan priests, therefore, the pastor is in good company indeed!
Betrayal comes in many forms. Perhaps when reading the letter from Pope Francis, and reflecting upon his reference to St Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, we may consider these words of the Curé. They attest to the assumption of a radical form of vulnerability by all of those who have uttered the 'adsum'. They point too, toward a dependence upon the relationship between Bishop and priest. A relationship which is founded upon their shared participation in the sacred. If the language of the conciliar documents is to not only be recited but honoured, and the mission of the Church fulfilled, these aspects of the Church's teaching must find authentic expression in the lived experience of its priests. Perhaps then the dangers of misdescription and distorted definitions will be revealed and the need to avoid both, appreciated.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom - pray for us.