Msgr Dempsey's response
The letter apparently argues that his reputation has been irrevocably smeared and that the accolades he has received over the years are inconsistent with the accusations against him being true. He also argues that he was the one hurt by the naming, yet he has no control over the Archdiocese's action or inaction.
It is an understandable reaction.
Personally I do think Senator Xenophon acted somewhat precipitately. While it is true that the Archdiocese appears to have pretty much sat on the case and done nothing for four years, the matter had only just been made public, and there was surely some hope that the Weekend Australian's coverage of the case would force some action even without the Senator taking this step.
And even if it was necessary to set a deadline, a one day deadline was, I think, just a tad short.
All the same, I have to say the appeal to reputation as a reason for rejection of the accusations out of hand just does not hold up; nor does Msgr Dempsey's claim that he has no influence on the handling of the case.
What constitutes a credible accusation?
Msgr Dempsey apparently suggests in his letter that Archbishop Hepworth will be shown to be a less than reliable witness. He certainly seems to have had a difficult and troubled life.
But these are matters for a formal investigation to look at and arrive at a view on.
The issue at stake here is when should a priest accused of any kind of serious misbehaviour stand aside, voluntarily or otherwise.
In my view, Msgr Dempsey should have offered to stand aside voluntarily (four yesrs ago) and insisted on the accusations being investigated and resolved one way or another as quickly as possible, just as, for example, Cardinal Pell did when he was faced with an accusation against him. That course is still open to him.
The real question is, do Archbishop Hepworth's accusations pass the credibility test making them warrant serious investigation, and for the priest concerned to be stood aside? Given that his accusations against two of the three priests concerned have already been found to be credible, and that those priests concerned seem to have left a long trail of other abuse cases behind them in Adelaide, Melbourne, and elsewhere, it is hard to see how his claims can be rejected out of hand.
Why reputation should not be a factor in decisions on standing aside a priest
The biggest problem in all this, in my view, is that the archdiocese appears to have accepted Msgr Dempsey's argument that his good reputation means he should not be stood aside.
Once upon a time, I might have agreed. One would expect priests to conform to a higher standard of behaviour; might assume that accusations against them are just the inevitable attacks of evil on the good.
Unfortunately, there is just too much evidence that just as the Church has been so badly infected by heresy in the last few decades, so also it has been infected by the wholesale collapse of traditional morality in our society. Too much evidence that many of our current priests should never have been ordained in the first place, while many who were excluded from ordination would in fact have made excellent priests.
I'm not saying that the Church is any worse than other institutions in our society in relation to sexual and other crimes. It may even be a little better.
I'm certainly not saying that there isn't a double standard in play - hard to imagine any priest found guilty of sexual abuse getting the sympathetic hearing accorded by the judge to Adelaide author Mem Fox's husband for example.
But it is clear that, as the Pope has acknowledged, there is a legacy of filth in the Church that needs to be dealt with, and it is in the very nature of sexual misconduct cases that the behaviour concerned has been concealed and covered up for many years; that people who appear publicly virtuous turn out not to be. Consider for example the case of Fr Marciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, friend of a Pope, numerous Cardinals and bishops!
I'm not suggesting that is the situation here.
But we simply can't know one way or the other (particularly given Archbishop Hepworth's claims that he did go to the authorities at the time and their threats were the reason for him leaving the Church), and those in power shouldn't be making decisions based on a presumption that could turn out to be false.
The urge to protect and defend
The instinct of bishops to protect and defend their priests in the face of accusations of misconduct or other criticism against them is perhaps a natural one. They are, after all, meant to have a fatherly relationship to their priests.
Moreover, false accusations do get made.
Yet bishops also have a duty to protect their flocks, and it is an unfortunate manifestation of clericalism in my view, to put their relationship to their priests ahead of the protection of the laity.
The precautionary principle, of taking action on the assumption that the consequences of not acting should the accusations subsequently be found to have something to them are high, should be adopted.