The abuse scandal, and broader problem of priestly misbehaviour, seems never-ending.
And still the way it is being played out suggests that there is a way to go in settling how to handle these issues properly.
Consider three recent developments. First the recent naming of priests in the US accused of past abuse and other misbehaviour, but not actually the subject of any specific court actions, with more to come. Secondly the phenomenon of the 'dissapeared' - priests a accused of abuse, suspended from their duties, but who then seem to enter a kind of limbo never to emerge again, either cleared or not. And finally, the very public case of televangelist Fr Corapi, who claims that action was taken against him before the accusations made were assessed for credibility, which if true would seem to be a clear breach of the principle of natural justice.
Evidence of the cover up continues to emerge...
The problem of course is the continuing distrust of the hierarchy's handling of abuse cases.
Where a priest has been accused of abuse, and the diocese or religious order have found the claim proved or highly probable (whether or not it went to a civil trial, or indeed whether or not the matter is actually a criminal offence), parishioners arguably have a right to know, and be assured that appropriate action has been taken. Instead of course, these cases were covered up, the perpetrators reshuffled elsewhere, creating the festering sore that we have today.
In the case of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia 21 priests were recently suspended following a Grand Jury investigation largely because the Jury found that diocesan investigators had dismissed credible claims of abuse too readily, particularly where it was a case of the priest's word against the accusers, and failed to take appropriate action.
Now Collegeville Monastery in Minnesota has named 17(!) monks with credible accusations against them. And then there is the case of the Chicago Jesuits...
The inevitable question is, could this yet happen in Australia, opening a new chapter in this sorry tale? On the face of it, the answer is yes. We know that there are quite a few priests in some dioceses with accusations against them who remain in ministry or restricted ministry. And continuing court cases and other incidents suggest that we still don't really have any basis for confidence that all accusations were treated seriously, properly tested, and appropriate action taken. Maybe some kind of formal review of past cases by someone independent needs to be done to get in front of this?
Dealing with false accusations or refusal to pursue a case
The other problem of course is that the reasonably clear cases have been muddied by the poor handling of a less clear cut group of cases where someone was accused, but where no conclusive finding was made.
On the face of it, if an accuser refuses to pursue the matter, refuses to have their claims properly tested, how, in all fairness can the accusation be allowed to stand?
There can, of course, be legitimate reasons for not wanting to pursue a case - more than a few accusers were perhaps burnt by the typically unsympathetic and defensive reaction from ecclesiastical authorities.
And there are cases where a particular claim might be unprovable, but yet a pattern of other problematic behaviour suggests that prudence on the part of the authorities is warranted, even at the expense of the rights of the priest concerned.
Still, not every claim is credible. False accusations are not only possible but likely, both out of malice in the face of those who pursue the good, out of greed given the possibility of monetary gain, or even just the desire for fame and notoriety on the part of the complainant, particularly in the current climate.
In these circumstances, is it really fair to simply disappear priests, leaving the cloud of guilt forever hanging over them?
Or even worse, for anonymous accusers to attempt to make unsupported, and in some cases blatantly false, accusations, or to rehash old ones on the web (I've rejected several comments of that ilk made to this blog; other forums, even in recent days, have let them through, at least until threatened with defamation action).
What is needed in cases such as these is some assurance that there is in fact some due process behind the decisions taken.
And then there is the Corapi case...
The most widely publicized case at the moment though, at least in the US, is that around Fr Corapi, made more complicated by the priest's decision to get in front of the accusations and state his own case publicly.
But it is a weird one, with he circumstances surrounding it extremely unclear, and already deeply polarised positions.
What it does seem to illustrate though, is that we still have a long way to go in persuading people to keep an open mind on accusations one way or another until the case is actually properly assessed. Apparently holy priests may be exactly what they appear to be - or not! Neither we nor bishops can know until the evidence is seen and tested.
Leaping in either to defend them, or to toss in other criticisms, is counter-productive at best. We need to see both justice being exercized, and the presumption of innocence respected...
The bottom line is that the system both in the US and Australia seems to have even further to go in getting the balance right, and seen to be right, between what must be the paramount concern, namely the protection of parishioners, and the rights of priests (or anyone else) to a good reputation.
The longer term solution of course lies in sound formation - and correction of past defective formation - and strict application of the proper criteria for ordination. All the evidence suggests that there is still a good way to go on that front in many places too...
In the meantime, pray for our priests!