If a priest is ‘credibly accused’ of sexual abuse, what does that mean? Depends whom you ask.

Suzanne Emerson, from Silver Spring, Md., holds a sign during a Nov. 12 news conference held by Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore for the annual fall general assembly. (CNS photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review) 

Readers of the America story on Dec. 19 about Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan’s accusation that the Archdiocese of Chicago and five other Illinois dioceses had not shared with the public the names of more than 500 priests accused of sexual abuse may have wondered how the attorney general’s office arrived at such a vastly different number (690 clergy) from the dioceses themselves (185 clergy). Much of the answer lies in the terms and definitions used to describe and classify alleged sexual abuse—and the significant disparities in how those terms are applied.

For example, the Archdiocese of Chicago and the five other dioceses in Illinois (Belleville, Joliet, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield) have released to the public the names of all priests who were “credibly accused,” whereas the attorney general’s preliminary study (investigators had access to diocesan files) arrived at 690 clerics by counting all “allegations related to sexual abuse.” But many dioceses and religious orders define the term “credibly accused” differently, so self-reported results are not always trusted by prosecutors or survivors. At the same time, the publication of a list of every single allegation related to sexual abuse would obviously include a number of spurious or unprovable allegations.

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Since 2002, all U.S. dioceses are required to refer allegations of sexual abuse of minors to an independent review board. In addition, many (including the Archdiocese of Chicago) report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities.

Many dioceses and religious orders define the term “credibly accused” differently, so self-reported results are not always trusted by prosecutors or survivors.

“Credibly accused” and “substantiated”
In an interview with a Houston television station on Dec. 10, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that what “credibly accused” meant in the various dioceses of Texas was “being worked out in terms of our lawyers even now as we speak.” The Archdiocese of Chicago uses “substantiated” instead of “credible,” stating that “an allegation is deemed to be substantiated if there is reasonable cause to believe that abuse occurred.” The Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul uses both terms, defining an accusation as credible if it is “not manifestly false or frivolous” and substantiated if “sufficient evidence exists to establish reasonable grounds to believe that the alleged abuse occurred. It is not a presumption of guilt.”

“Established allegation”
The Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus uses “established allegation” instead of "credibly accused" or "substantiated." An established allegation is "based on the facts and circumstances where there is a reasonable certainty that the accusation is true and that the sexual abuse of a minor occurred,” said Michael McGrath, a spokesperson for the Midwest Province, in an email interview with America. “A number of criteria are considered in making these determinations,” McGrath continued, “including first-hand reporting by the victim-survivor, the number of allegations, the facts and circumstances and corresponding investigation, whether it is possible to have occurred based on the accused’s and victim’s location and proximity, possible corroborating testimony by others, whether the accused Jesuit admitted the alleged abuse, and the results of criminal investigations and proceedings when those are available.”

The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an umbrella organization for male religious orders in the United States, also uses the language of “established allegation,” though defines it slightly differently: “Based upon the facts and the circumstances, there is objective certainty that the accusation is true and that an incident of sexual abuse of a minor has occurred.” The conference clarifies that an established allegation

is not based upon a ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ i.e. more likely to be true than not, which may be established by 51% or more of the evidence. Established Allegation is in keeping with the canonical standard of ‘moral certitude’ which states that [the] major superior recognizes that the contrary (that the allegation is false) may be possible, but is highly unlikely or so improbable, that the major superior has no substantive fear that the allegation is false.

“The semblance of truth”
Canon law (the universal legal code of the Catholic Church) does not use the language of credible or substantiated but instead mandates the investigation of any offense against church law “which has at least the semblance of truth.”

Cardinal DiNardo stated that future “action steps” for the U.S. bishops included “studying national guidelines for the publication of lists of names of those clerics facing substantiated claims of abuse.”

“Not implausible”
The John Jay Report, a 2004 research study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the nature and scope of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and deacons in the United States between 1950 and 2002, uses the terms “credible” and “non-credible” to refer to allegations of abuse but does not offer a definition of the terms; the report also uses “substantiated” and “unsubstantiated” elsewhere to classify allegations. The report defines an allegation as “any accusation that is not implausible,” including “allegations that did not necessarily result in a criminal, civil or diocesan investigation and allegations that are unsubstantiated.” The report considers an allegation implausible if the abuse “could not possibly have happened under the given circumstances.”

National guidelines to come?
At the close of last month’s U.S.C.C.B. meeting in Baltimore, Cardinal DiNardo stated that future “action steps” for the U.S. bishops included “studying national guidelines for the publication of lists of names of those clerics facing substantiated claims of abuse.” He also alluded to February’s scheduled summit meeting at the Vatican of leading bishops from around the world on the protection of minors in the church as an opportunity to reach a more global consensus on sex abuse norms: “Moving forward in concert with the Church around the world will make the Church in the United States stronger, and will make the global Church stronger.”

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J. Calpezzo
5 months 4 weeks ago

Roger Mahony beat the rap. These guys can too.

John McGrath
5 months 4 weeks ago

Given the confusion, and in fairness to all, wouldn't bishop owe a letter to a parish to explain a "sexual" designation mean sin the case of a bishop serving in that parish?

Ellen B
5 months 4 weeks ago

This is why the Church hierarchy has no credibility.

Terry Kane
5 months 4 weeks ago

When Judge Kavanaugh was "credibly accused" by Christine Ford, this magazine withdrew its endorsement immediately and many posters agreed with that decision. However, when a priest is accused, the reaction is so much more nuanced. "Future 'action steps'" must be addressed in cases like that. How many of these accusations are over thirty years old with no substantiation whatsoever? How many accusers claim bizarre reactions to the abuse such as needing two front doors and being unable to fly, etc.? Probably not too many, but America magazine's reaction to Kavanaugh was something along the lines of "off with his head." When priests are accused, it's oh so much more nuanced.
Hypocrisy is not a pretty thing, especially in a religious magazine.
Sad.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
5 months 4 weeks ago

Right-on, Terry Kane! Another example of the Jesuit double-standard. Do you remember when Fordham Jesuit University withdrew the invitation to speak to the conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, and America Media was so pleased with that decision to deny her the opportunity to express her point of view? Do you also remember when Catholic University of America withdrew the invitation to Fr. John Martin, S.J., to speak found it outrageous that a few donors could deny Fr. Martin his right to state his case? Double-standard all the way. America Media - wake-up; get your head on straight, and quit the hypocrisy!

Terry Kane
5 months 3 weeks ago

^5

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
5 months 4 weeks ago

The dioceses and religious communities must have a uniform set of criteria to determine credibility and it must be published so that everyone is on a level playing field. As well, the definition of credibility cannot vary from state to state, which is an injustice to the accused and the accuser.

Phillip Stone
5 months 3 weeks ago

I wonder if you would have done better by insisting on being charged in the civil courts - demanding that your accuser put up or shut up.

I have sure and certain knowledge of someone falsely accused and losing his position as an elder in his expatriate community and just as sure and certain knowledge of true accusations brushed aside by his Provincial and sent interstate to his own parish.
There must be no alternate tribunals, especially religious courts in the free world because almost immediately the Muslims will insist on sharia courts in the same area.

Jeffrey More
5 months 3 weeks ago

Sadly, this article provides yet another stark illustration of the contempt in which the clerical caste that [mis]manages Catholicism USA Inc. holds the faithful. As the article makes clear, the reason the Illinois AG on the one hand and six Illinois dioceses on the other reached vastly different conclusions about the number of accused is that the Church applied limiting definitions to its calculation of the number, which had the (presumably intended) effect of greatly lowering that number. Put another way, the Church authorities engaged in an exercise of quibbling, caviling sophistry. It is interesting to note that the three different limiting terms/definitions used by various sectors of the clerical caste (credible accusation, substantiated accusation, and established allegation) to characterize and define abuse accusations form a continuum of rigorousness; that is to say, it's easier to characterize an allegation as "credible" than it is to characterize an allegation as "substantiated" (as those terms are defined in the article), and it would be far harder still to fit an allegation into the Jesuit-endorsed "established" category. The more rigorous the filtering definition, the fewer the number of accusations you need to concern yourself with. It's also interesting to note that Cardinal DiNardo is quoted as saying the US bishops have as one of their "action steps" the "studying" (not crafting, nor enacting) guidelines for publishing lists of clerics facing "substantiated" claims of abuse. I suppose that's better than adopting the Jesuit standard of "established" claims, but it's still an exercise in sophistry and potential obfuscation.

Michael Barberi
5 months 3 weeks ago

These different definitions to describe and classify sexual abuse may increase rather than decrease the incredibility of the Church to investigate itself and find clergy (e.g., priests, bishops, cardinals) innocent or guilty of sexual abuse, or in its cover up. Either the Roman Curia should establish one definition for the worldwide Church or each Conference of Bishops should do it. If most or many dioceses use different definitions, then this may well complicate the search for truth and the consistency of justice.

Tim O'Leary
5 months 3 weeks ago

This article actually makes me more sympathetic to the plight of the bishops and more skeptical of the AGs. The situation is rife for grand-standing and posturing, "taking a stand with the "survivors" by assuming guilt until innocence is proved" (this Journal's Kavanaugh test - for the good of all real victims, all accusations should be assumed true). SNAP or Bishop Accountability take this position, no matter what the contravening evidence. Certainly, all dead priests are assumed guilty and no one will likely spend time and money to prove their innocence. I think many are likely guilty, especially when there are multiple victims of the one priest. But after 30 or 40 years, how can guilt be firmly established, esp. if it is one person's word against another? Even Maciel, clearly guilty (multiple witnesses and events), had one of key accuser later recant, and say he made the accusation to hurt the Legion.

The Salem witch trials had a few tests beyond confessions under torture and bound submission (sinking proved innocence). They were made recite the Lord's prayer and stumbling or stammering was evidence for witchcraft. Eye witness testimonials (if some got sick or died after meeting a suspect) and dreams of the accusers (seeing the accused doing the Devil's bidding) resulted in several convictions. Some of the latter were thrown out on appeal.

Skepticism aside, I yearn for justice that is real and not posturing. Administrative leave while an investigation is performed by an independent review board and parallel notification of the police (i.e. the Dallas Charter) seems the least unfair process. This is zero tolerance today. It is not perfect, since an investigation that ends in a priest's favor doesn't get him his reputation back. Only a clear recant of the accusation does this. I note that even when law enforcement get involved, very few get actually convicted and even convictions get reversed on appeal. It's an imperfect process. But, the Lawyers win financially, no matter what and the Church loses, no matter what. People lose the most - Souls are lost as faith and practice is abandoned. How many are going to hell because of this scandal, across the spectrum? God help us.

Dutch Brewster
5 months 3 weeks ago

Quibbling about the numbers of credible accusations hinders the purification of the church, as does parsing the precise meaning of the words used to describe the merit or likely veracity of the allegations against priests.

As Christians, we want to individually and collectively repent for our sins and cooperate with God and His grace. The filthy church needs to be cleaned. Establish an efficient due process within the Church's canon laws, and cast out every dirty priest and bishop. We must end the leadership's corrupt, shameful lifestyle of perversion and lust and rape and cover-up, and shut down the institutional underground railroad all its sexual predators have been using to migrate to new hunting grounds, in Jesus's name!

Tim O'Leary
5 months 3 weeks ago

Dutch - to call it quibbling by wanting to know if a priest is innocent or guilty of a charge is an egregious choice of words, no matter how one parses a definition. DNA evidence has overturned 362 guilty verdicts since it was introduced in 1989 (see link below). That means a jury can get it wrong a lot of times. These falsely imprisoned served an aggregate of 5,014 years. Regarding the Attorneys General lists of priest sex abuse allegations, the number of falsely accused has to be a significant fraction, at least 10-20%, if not more (in the Philadelphia case). I do not think the Church can be purified by casting out falsely accused innocent priests and bishops. It would in fact only prolong the impurity. I fully agree with you that we must end any "corrupt, shameful lifestyle of perversion and lust and rape and cover-up," whether clergy or laity (don't forget the guilty laity who coach the teams, lead the scouts, lead the corporations in media and elsewhere). We only dirty ourselves if we are cavalier about justice.

Molly Roach
5 months 3 weeks ago

This inability to identify a definition of a "credible accusation" illustrates the unwillingness of the US hierarchy to give concentrated thought to the sex abuse crisis and work together to grow in understanding it.

Michael Barberi
5 months 3 weeks ago

Molly - I also think that it illustrates that the US hierarchy continues to put the reputation of the Church ahead of truth, justice and the victims. This scandal is systemic and we are likely only starting to understand how prevalent it has been and continues to be. The good news is that we have hope in Pope Francis and in the February meeting on sexual abuse. I pray this 'hope' results in significant and necessary reforms and that those guilty of sexual abuse, coverup and gross negligence of ecclesial office are brought to justice.

Tim O'Leary
5 months 3 weeks ago

Molly and Michael: I think you are both being unfair here. Even US states have different criteria. The Illinois AG has not released sufficient details of these allegations, so we do not know if most are historical. But, I think you also have not considered how difficult it is to have a single test that is just to all involved. For example, a single allegation made 40 years ago of uncertain location and time on a dead priest is very different from multiple allegations closer to the present, or one where the living priest admits his role, or where there are corroborating witnesses of the circumstances surrounding the event. It is also a big difference if the allegation is of a verbal assault vs. physical touching vs. sexual touching vs. rape. The AG lumps all these together. I think more important than a single definition is an independent review panel (which should be going on for priests since the Dallas Charter). This should also be applied to bishops (which the Dallas Charter omitted, suspiciously when McCarrick was involved). Three very recent allegations were all believed to be substantial despite very different circumstances and all were quickly determined to be false by the police are linked below. The DAs criticized the Church for going public with the names and harming their reputations. When one reads the details, a fair-minded person should see how difficult this is:
1. https://www.pottsmerc.com/news/berks-county-d-a-says-priest-wrongly-accused-of-child/article_9bd84384-b6be-11e8-9bc2-8723237278cd.html
"“It is unfortunate that the accusation of child sexual abuse against Rev. Gillis was made public by the Diocese of Orlando before the outcome of this investigation could be determined. These types of investigations are very sensitive in nature. Many times when the accused is publicly mentioned prematurely, without any factual basis, it can compromise an investigation," [District Attorney] Adams said.
2. https://gloria.tv/article/pJwJqrUtunjp1iLgAtE1Eh2v9 "Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Kevin Rhoades, 60, is not guilty of any wrongdoing regarding an alleged abuse of J.T. who died in 1996, a Pennsylvania district attorney has concluded on September 13. The district attorney noticed that unnecessary harm was done to the bishop's reputation by [illegally] leaking accusations to the press."
3. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/false-accusations-of-sexual-abuse-can-leave-lasting-scars

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