In a memorable speech from Robert Bolt’s famous play A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More argues with his son-in-law, Will Roper, about the need for law, even for the most hardened of criminals. To Roper’s claim that he would cut down every law in England to reach the Devil, More responds,
Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down… do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
More’s reflection on the necessity of law is pertinent for our times. The Wall Street Journal, for example, recently ran an editorial entitled “The Presumption of Guilt”. The piece argued that, for some, the “sexual-assault allegations [against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh] should be accepted as true merely for having been made.” According to this way of thinking, “the burden is on Mr. Kavanaugh to prove his innocence.”
The editorial goes on to say that the American notion of justice and due process is such that “an accuser can’t doom someone’s freedom or career merely by making a charge.” If that were possible, then anyone could be ruined on a whim or through a vendetta. The editorial warns that, if we do not protect the traditional system of justice, “the new American standard of due process will be the presumption of guilt.”
Other newspaper columnists have underscored the truth of this message. Daniel Henninger, for example, presses the argument: It’s clear that the “accusation [against Kavanaugh] can be neither proved nor disproved.” But failing proof, one baseless accusation after another can simply be piled up against an opponent. The proper description for this way of acting is not justice or due process, but “the mob in the Roman Colosseum, turning thumbs up or down on the combatants.”
Anyone not blinded by ideological bias knows that these assertions are true. But has anyone taken notice of how closely the objections to the Kavanaugh case parallel how accused priests are currently treated in the Catholic Church?
Given the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, today hardly seems the time to defend priests. On the surface, at least, a veil of sexual malfeasance has encircled the Catholic clergy. But as the citation from Bolt’s play makes clear, even the Devil himself is entitled to the rule of law. If we forget this, or if we ignore it because we are blinded by outrage, then justice can no longer prevail for any of the accused, no matter the crime. Without due process, a benighted tribalism will eventually overtake us—perhaps even a Hobbesian war of all against all, bellum omnium contra omnes.
As it presently stands, Catholic priests are suspended from their ministry because of a “credible accusation”. Credible simply means “not impossible”—that is, an incident could have possibly occurred. And many of the accusations leveled against priests, like those leveled at Kavanaugh, are from decades ago. In most cases, no evidence can be brought forward one way or another because none exists either to verify or falsify an allegation.
But priests accused of sexual abuse, even if the accusation remains unsubstantiated, are doomed men. They can no longer exercise public ministry, are forbidden to occupy diocesan property, and lose their sole source of income. Doomed is indeed the right word—and all on the basis, often enough, of accusations alone.
I write this because many are wringing their hands that Brett Kavanaugh has been treated unjustly. As William McGurn has written, “Mr. Kavanaugh must now do the impossible: prove an assault never happened.” True enough. But, in the midst of their panic in 2002—when policies were crafted with PR in mind, not natural justice or Catholic theology—bishops demanded the same thing of priests. Like Kavanaugh, many priests have subsequently claimed that they were falsely accused. But to no avail. Few have spared a thought of justice or due process for these men.
In sum, anyone complaining that Brett Kavanaugh is being treated unjustly should have the courage to look again at the American bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Young People (Dallas Charter) and how priests have been similarly treated. Some have argued that, while the Charter is flawed, it has stemmed the tide of abuse in the Church. But at what cost? Even if only a few dozen priests have been falsely accused and unjustly deprived of their ministries, is this acceptable collateral damage? No human being with a rightly formed conscience could answer that question affirmatively. As the fictional Sir Thomas More presciently recognized, once laws are cut flat, no man can stand upright against the Devil. Brett Kavanaugh is finding this out now. Catholic priests, sadly, have known it for a long time.
As the Catholic Church seeks to climb out of the swirling waters of sexual malfeasance—waters that have pulled the bishops themselves into its vortex—now is the time to rethink radically the Charter’s norms and to establish a just policy which is applicable to all clergy, bishops, priests and deacons. Only this kind of serious and transformative reform will restore the confidence and trust of Catholic priests and people alike in the Church’s leadership.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!