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Verdict first, sentence afterwards

Their clerical status is not an excuse for treating accused priests, bishops, and cardinals unfairly.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, June 5, 2019. (CNS photo/Julian Smith, AAP Image via Reuters)

During a mad, memorable trial scene near the end of Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts decrees “Sentence first–verdict afterwards.” When Alice corrects her, the Queen, face purple with rage, acts out the edict she has just pronounced and bawls with all her might, “Off with her head!”

It occurs to me that something like that–but by no means as amusing as Lewis Carroll makes it–may be starting to happen in at least a few high-visibility cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct by members of the Catholic hierarchy.

Before pursuing that thought further, though, I should say firmly and clearly that any priest, bishop, or cardinal guilty of sexually abusing a child should be tried, convicted, and punished severely. Ecclesiastical office should play no part here. But that cuts both ways: their clerical status is not an excuse for treating accused priests, bishops, and cardinals unfairly.

The most obvious case to which this dictum applies is that of Cardinal George Pell, former Archbishop of Sydney and former head of the Vatican’s financial secretariat, who is now in the hands of the Australian legal system, charged with abusing two boys in the 1990s.

The good news is that Australia’s High Court has agreed to hear his case. The bad news is that two lower courts found him guilty in circumstances that cause some to question whether justice is being done. In those earlier court proceedings, it seems, instead of the prosecution having to prove his guilt, the Cardinal was put in the position of having to prove his innocence. This is as much an inversion of right order as the Queen’s “sentence first–verdict afterwards.”

Now, closer to home, we have the case of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, whom a 56-year-old man accuses of abusing him more than 40 years ago. Bishop DiMarzio categorically denies the allegation and promises to defend himself in court.

The twist in this case is that Pope Francis designated Bishop DiMarzio to conduct an “apostolic visitation” of alleged cases of clergy abuse and coverup in the Diocese of Buffalo. His report is said now to be in Rome. Clearly, the media relish the irony and are happy to highlight it. The Associated Press for one headlined its story “Bishop Investigating Sex Abuse is Accused of Sex Abuse.”

But the irony here is genuinely ironic only if one assumes before the fact that Bishop DiMarzio is guilty–and that is precisely what he unequivocally denies and what remains to be fought out in court. Absent guilt, what is happening isn’t ironic but tragic. Thus the media would do well to hold off on gloating. At most, the present situation raises questions about the wisdom of having bishops investigate bishops. But that is something the Vatican insists on, and there is no getting around it.

As this story was breaking, the U.S. bishops, meeting in Baltimore, were hearing a report from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, a member of the council of cardinals who serve as advisors to the Pope, that a comprehensive report by the Vatican shedding light on former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s rise in the hierarchy–despite a reputation in clerical circles as an abuser–may be released quite soon.

The Vatican promised this over a year ago, but it’s good to know it’s ready–or almost ready–at last. As for the contents, it would be well to wait and see. No “sentence first–verdict afterwards” on this one, please.

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About Russell Shaw 263 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Sir,

    Thank you for this thoughtful article.
    My one comment is that the idea that only bishops can investigate bishops is now operationally unimportant. The hierarchy dropped the ball and now, at least in the U.S., has left that responsibility in the hands of the courts. So, no one cares about ecclesiastical investigations any more; we have to now rely on secular authorities for justice because we refused to take care of our household. Sadly, I don’t think there will be a change of heart (not mere policies to protect assets and reputations) until a few bishops go to jail for the horrific neglect of their family.
    It is that bad, in my opinion.

    God bless
    Dan Hoffman

    • The Catholic bishops have outsmarted themselves.
      Unfortunately for them, their future is filled with Feds and A/Gs
      using RICO laws to uncover the truth.
      Bet on it.

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