Matt C. Abbott
March 18, 2010
Was priest falsely accused?
By Matt C. Abbott

When it comes to the issue of sexual abuse, I consider myself a survivor's advocate; but I do realize that false accusations occur, and such accusations are devastating to the falsely accused.

In the realm of clergy abuse, a priest or religious falsely accused of molestation is essentially ruined for life. Hence, we need to support not only the survivors of clergy abuse, but also those priests and religious who are innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. Yes, the percentage of false accusations is relatively small, but still...even one false accusation is one too many.

Joe Maher, president of Opus Bono Sacerdotii ("work for the good of the priesthood"), received the following (slightly edited) e-mail from a priest known as Father John.

    'Dear Mr. Maher,

    'I don't know where to begin. Those five words in the subject of this e-mail were some of the most difficult I ever had to write. A priest and friend gave me a flyer from Opus Bono two weeks ago and after I read of your ministry I felt I was given a direction or a glimpse of hope that someone might understand. And so, with all humility I extend my arm and hand to you.

    'Until a priest has to personally experience the pain and degradation of being removed from priestly service, there is no one who can possibly 'understand.' This year, I will observe (I cannot say celebrate) my 40th anniversary of ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. This past June, I had a surprise visit to my parish office by two officials from the chancery, the vicar for priests and a canon lawyer (who happens to be a classmate of mine). They asked to see me privately and I was extremely nervous because of their attitude and demeanor. When the three of us were alone, they proceeded to tell me that a 'credible allegation of sexual abuse' was made against me and that I had an hour to pack a bag and to come with them. Few details were given to me when I asked.

    'They mentioned a name which I never heard of before and that this 'victim' was deceased. His widow and attorney came to the diocese to bring this supposed abuse to their attention. This was to have occurred some thirty years ago. I have served in my parish as pastor for almost 20 years without the slightest hint of any impropriety.

    'As I left with them in utter disbelief, shame and humiliation, I discovered later that the diocese had already sent out a 'Fax Blast' concerning my removal. After the press and media extensively exposed my 'credible allegation of sexual abuse' for two days, I found myself living in a hellish nightmare. After some two or three weeks later, the same two officials called me to another meeting and informed me that another 'victim' came forth after the public disclosure to make a second allegation against me. (And I had thought that life could not have possibly gotten any worse.)

    'As God as my witness, I swear as I swore on a Bible before the diocesan officials, these allegations are totally and completely untrue. My mind and my soul are bruised, beaten and trampled down. My parishioners are most supportive but I am not permitted to visit them and I cannot afford to call them by telephone. My health is not good and I had avoided many appointments with my doctors. This past Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were the worst emotionally devastating events I have ever had to endure. I was close to suicide. I suffer panic attacks, acute anxiety and severe depression. Worst of all, there is nobody that can really understand or share this onerous burden that I bear.

    'I am in financial ruin 'to put the icing on the cake.' I have exhausted my life savings trying to pay monthly expenses for car lease payments, auto insurance, telephone, and many credit card companies to mention a few.

    'Even when the day for my exoneration and restoration does come, I have already seen the future. There is none. Two weeks ago a fellow priest of our diocese was accused of sexual misconduct which allegedly occurred forty years prior, was exonerated and was officially assigned to serve 'in restricted ministry' at a convent motherhouse. When the media got hold of his new assignment, the public outcry that a 'priest, accused of credible sexual abuse' would be assigned to an area which had schools and day-care centers nearby, our bishop, bowing to 'public pressure and shepherdly concern' reversed and revoked his official assignment the very next day, not even twenty-four hours had elapsed.

    'Now I have abandoned all hope. I do not know where to turn for help, for someone who understands. I am ashamed. I am alone. I reach out for your hand.

    'Father John'

I asked Pete Ferrara, vice president and treasurer of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, if I could use Father John's true identity and diocese. Mr. Ferrara responded (slightly edited):

    'The challenge with using his name and diocese is two-fold.

    'First and foremost any priest that comes to us does it out of confidence that he can talk to us and we not publicize his name. This case is one of literally thousands of similar cases that we have dealt with over the past eight years. Many of these men are scared for their safety and for their livelihood. I received a call from a 75-year-old priest on Friday who is not answering his phone and keeping the shades drawn because he was falsely accused and scared to death that someone is going to cart him away. His family is all but gone and he had nowhere else to turn after the state police showed up on his door the day before.

    'If a diocese is named, it is a surefire way to have this priest put into even deeper water. It has become practice for many dioceses to publicize the priest's name, with a picture, with the occurrence of any accusation. It is also common practice that once a priest is removed, he is cut off from all means of support: salary, insurance and a place to live.

    'I tell people all the time, don't be mad at the Church. Don't be mad at the victims groups and don't be mad at the priests. We must love those at all levels and with all sins and injustices. This is a fantastic time for all of us to practice our Christian beliefs with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    'Of the thousands of cases that I alone have worked on, there is one theme that rings through them all: The priest will continue to say, "I don't want to lose my priesthood, I just want to be able to say the Mass!"

    'That's enough for me.'

Related link:

"Priest cleared of abuse allegations"

© Matt C. Abbott

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He has been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR and WLS-TV in Chicago, and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.

(Note: I welcome thoughtful feedback from readers. If you want our correspondence to remain confidential, please specify as such in your initial email to me... (more)

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