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