This letter was forwarded with permission by the priest to whom it was written.
Hope comes by the Holy Spirit from many sources and the priest-author, who was himself in prison and has with an open heart honestly accepted the consequences of his actions, has also accepted the grace of conversion and repentance.
May his openness, we pray, give hope to others.
You have been accused of sexual misconduct: Now what do you do?
I write at the request of a priest-friend
who has asked me to draw on my experience to suggest an answer to the question posed above. My experience includes sixteen years of active ministry as a priest and involuntary laicization during the twenty-fifth year of my priesthood. It also includes more than three years incarceration for an accusation of a sexual offense to which I pleaded guilty. I have a working knowledge of the relevant criminal, civil and canonical issues as well as of treatment modalities and approaches; I also have intense personal experience with them. What follows is rooted in my study and prayer and
– most of all – in my experience. I invite you to reflect on what I have written and adapt it to your experience – which of course is uniquely your own.
It is now widely recognized that for a long time the institutional church did not respond adequately to accusations of sexual misconduct by priests. In many respects, we now make judgments about past evens with the advantage of contemporary insights and understandings. Until the explosion of civil suits against the church in the 1980’s, the response of most bishops and religious superiors to accusations of sexual misconduct, even when there was no question about the veracity of the accusations, did not address the real needs of either victims or offenders. Too often, offenders were placed in positions that enabled them to continue offending. The failure of persons in authority to take appropriate action was not, for the most part, a failure of good will or good intentions; it was a failure of insight and understanding. However, it must be acknowledged that part of the failure was rooted in a badly flawed understanding of the bishop’s role in the community. The bishop saw himself as charged, first and foremost, with a responsibility to protect the church; unfortunately, the bishop usually saw that responsibility in institutional terms, not in human terms. At least until the mid 1980’s, and well beyond that in many instances, bishops believed the institutional needs of the church were best met by denial and secrecy when sexual misconduct by priests was alleged or even proven.
If the explosion of lawsuits has caused the bishops to take notice of a problem they too often swept under the rug in the past, it has also poisoned the atmosphere in which victims, offenders and the church try to effect healing and peace. To a great extent, money – not healing – drives the process. My working presupposition is this: the response of most bishops and religious superiors to allegations of sexual misconduct is still rooted in a desire to protect the institutional church, financially and in terms of public relations. The fundamental principle on which they operate – that the institutional church must appear blameless – remains unchanged. The new reality is that secrecy is often not an option ( although many bishops would still choose it if they could). The bishops continue to resist an honest assessment of the theological, psychological and sociological implications of sexual misconduct by priests.
Dioceses are portions of the people of God; they are also legal entities. Bishops are pastors; they are also executive offices of the legal entity which is the diocese. May have fine pastoral instincts and skills, and as pastors have a deep and genuine concern for the well-being of the accuses and of the accused. But make no mistake about
it: when bishops respond to allegations of sexual misconduct, they are acting as executive offices, not as pastors; they follow the script prepared for them by their lawyers and insurance companies. The allegation of sexual misconduct will initiate a process in which you will become a pawn – especially if/when the issue of money is introduced.
The above may sound cynical, even jaded: but it is more or less true, depending on where you are. The procedures now in place in many dioceses for dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct are Machiavellian: they are intended to present the appearance of concern for the persons involved, but they are really designed to insulate the diocesan corporation from civil liability. Therefore, whether you are guilty or not, you will be seen as a liability; your bishop or superior is likely to begin distancing himself from you – perhaps even avoiding personal contact with you.
When you are accused..
Don’t say anything! If you are guilty, you may be tempted to blurt out your guilt ( or worse, to maintain your innocence). If you are innocent, you will want to assert your innocence. If you are guilty in part, you may be tempted to clarify what, in your view, really happened. The allegation of sexual misconduct is so serious, and the consequences so severe, that nothing you say when you are first confronted is likely to be helpful to you or to the accusers.
Ultimately, it must be your goal to come to grips with the truth and to acknowledge that truth to others – and, if you are guilty, to accept the consequences of your behavior and to do the best you can to male amends to those whom you’ve hurt. However, you can’t do these things quickly or easily. You must move prudently and you must be guided by persons who can help you to accomplish your goal: telling the truth.
If you are arrested or questioned by the police: Don’t say anything! Do not surrender your right to representation. Even if you are guilty of the accusations made against you and are anxious to confess you have a right to have an attorney represent you in an effort to minimize your exposure to criminal penalties and to maximize your ability to get the help you need.
If you are confronted by an alleged victim or by someone else representing the accuser: Don’t say anything! Treat the person with as much respect as you can muster; don’t respond to the substance of the allegation. If the person has taken the step of confronting you, nothing you say or do at this point is likely to resolve the allegation. Provide the person confronting you with the name and telephone number of the official in your diocese or community who is responsible for responding to such allegations. Notify your superior of the allegation. Whether you are guilty or not, there is nothing to be gained by trying to hide the allegation or hoping that it will go away.
If you are confronted by your bishop or religious superior: Don’t say anything! An admission of guilt at this point will not serve you or your victims as well; a protestation of your innocence ( even if you are innocent ) at this point will not likely dissuade your bishop from the course of action which is laid out for him by diocesan policy. Let him know that you are in the process of consulting advisors who will assist you in responding to the allegations in due time. If he believes the allegations against you are credible, he will likely ( and let’s be
honest: he should ) remove you from your assignment until the allegations are resolved. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with him about this, at least until you have obtained sound legal and canonical advice.
Building a Support System
You are at the beginning of what is likely to be a long, difficult and painful process. You can survive it, of course; it can even be an occasion of growth for you. However, you are going to need help – and lots of it. If you are guilty, in whole or in part, you will need support and advice as you search for a way to accept the truth about yourself and to acknowledge it to others. If you are truly innocent, you will need the very best legal counsel you can get. Although the presumption of innocence theoretically guides the criminal justice system, you will be presumed guilty by many people – probably including you bishop. And do your support system must include:
A civil lawyer. You need a capable, experienced, aggressive attorney who will advocate for you and who knows the criminal justice system in the jurisdiction where you have been accused. You ought to be very careful about retaining an attorney recommended to you or paid for by your diocese. ( It is not likely that they will offer to pay for one. ) You must be satisfied that the attorney who represents you is working in your best interest. It is important to understand that, whether you are guilty or not, your interests and those of the diocese do not coincide.
A canon lawyer. There are many canonical issues that unfold as the bishop responds to the allegations of misconduct by a priest. Once again, the lawyer who advises you on these issues must be one whom you trust to protect your rights. This may not be – indeed probably is not – your classmate in the chancery or your friend in the Tribunal. Canonists who work in or for your diocese are likely to have divided loyalty; it may be a disservice to them for you to ask their assistance in a matter that may become adversarial between you and the diocese. Seek, then, a canon lawyer who does not have such a conflict. You may contact the Canon Law Society of America**to be referred to a canonist who will be willing to advise you. ( Note: please be sure to have a frank discussion about your ability and willingness to pay for this service.)
A medical doctor. Even if you have been in good health, a check-up is in order now. If you have health issues, it’s especially important to monitor your health and to do the things you need to do to take care of yourself.
A psychologist or mental health professional. Once again, you have a right to choose someone you trust to be an advocate for you. This may or may not be someone the diocese recommends to you. You have legal and canonical rights with respect to health care, including mental health care, and it is wise to know those rights before discussing or agreeing to treatment. But by all means: find someone to provide you support and guidance during this very troubled time in your life.
A spiritual director or confessor. Once again, find someone you trust and make arrangements for regular time for prayer and reflection. If you acknowledge the truthfulness of the allegations in the context of sacramental confession, be grateful for the grace of the sacrament – but understand that this does not absolve you of the responsibility of responding in an honest way to the allegations that have been made against you.
Family and friends. You must begin by telling selected persons among your family and friends what is going on in your life. Some of them, by reason of who they are to you, have a certain right or even need to know; others you may tell because you feel able and willing to trust them with knowing who you really are. Be selective: don’t tell persons who might be harmed by this information or who may not be able to wrestle with the implications. Consult your attorneys and advisers as you make these decisions. Expect some of these people to have a difficult time accepting you and what you have told them; do not expect too much to soon. On the other hand, get ready to be amazed by the power of the love of persons who love you for the good person they know you to be even while they abhor the bad things you have been accused of doing. You are about to find out who your real friends are and what real friendship means.
Some Do’s and Don’ts:
- Don’t drink. Alcohol impedes your judgment, detracts impulse control and exacerbates depression. If you already have a drinking problem, it is imperative that you get help immediately. If you are tempted to start drinking ( or using other drugs ) as a result of your present difficulty, then you already have a problem: Get help! You will need to be in control of your faculties as this process unfolds.
- Don’t use or abuse any drugs, legal or otherwise. Discuss any medication you are taking or wish to take with your physician.
- Don’t buy or possess a weapon. As you know, suicide is a ‘permanent solution to a temporary problem.’ Yes: this problem is temporary. You can deal with it and build a life that allows you to live in integrity and with meaning – even if you have to live that life in prison. In fact, you have an obligation to live with integrity, and therefore no right to take your own life. If you are tempted to harm yourself, tell someone! There are people who can and will help you through the darkest hours, but you have to let them do it. If you are in crisis, go to an Emergency Room and ask for crisis intervention treatment.
- Don’t give up! You can negotiate this journey with integrity and courage.
- Pray. You may find it hard to pray; pray anyway. Words may not come; use the Office, the Rosary or other prayers that have had meaning in your life. When you most feel alienated from God, when you feel the least able to pray: Pray! Pray for yourself; pray for those who love and support you; pray for your bishop and superiors; most of all, pray for you accusers and/or victims and for those who love them.
- Believe in your own goodness and trust in God.