Credible accusations and the semblance of truth

Lately, many people have been finding fault with the Dallas Charter and its provisions for dealing with credibly accused priests. If memory serves, one very important question that slipped everyone’s mind was: What makes an accusation credible?

In last week’s National Catholic Reporter, Zoe Ryan reports that the term’s vagueness has created considerable confusion:

Yet no precise definition or standard exists for what it means to be “credibly accused,” leaving each diocese to decide on its own what credible means.

The term is not in the language of church law, but draws its meaning from another imprecise phrase, “semblance of truth,” from Canon 1717. An accusation is credible if there is about it “a semblance of truth.”

The lack of precision in language is one of the flaws exposed by the recent Philadelphia grand jury report, which claimed that more than two dozen priests in the Philadelphia archdiocese who should have been removed from ministry had remained active.

A credible accusation does not label a person as guilty or not guilty; it merely shows that an accusation at least seems true, said Fr. James Connell, a priest in the Milwaukee archdiocese who is also a canon lawyer and a member of the Diocesan Review Board.

Continue reading here: here:
“Semblance of truth” sounds a rough equivalent of a prima facie case — evidence that, taken at face value, would suffice to condemn someone. If that’s true, then diocesan review boards would seem to function like grand juries.

What Ryan doesn’t do is list the kinds of evidence that contribute to creating this “semblance of truth.” In child-abuse cases, there aren’t likely to be any corroborating eyewitness. In cases that open some time after the commission of the alleged offenses, there won’t likely be any physical evidence.

I wish I knew more about this stuff. EWTN needs to produce the canon equivalent of Judge Judy.

  • Barbara Peters

    The prima facie evidence standard is too high for credible accusation – that would require a full investigaton since that is the standard on which you go to trial. In New York, where there is “reasonable suspicion” of child abuse in an educational setting, a school superintendent must make a report to appropriate law enforcement authorities who then conduct the investigation. In addition, certain individuals are mandatory reporters of child abuse to Child Protective Service who must make such reports if they have reasoanble cause to suspect child abuse has occured or is occuring in or out of school. There can never be a one size fits all formula for credible accusation because it requires and assesment of the known and available information including an assessment of the credibility of accusers.

  • jh

    Anchoress it is actually far worse in most cases.

    My understanding is often it is just the linking of time and place and then assuming allegations is true. This is acutally less than probable Cause which Grand Juries or an Judge must find as to an indictment.

  • Greta

    I think the entire deal is a mess for priests, but most do not want any more abuse and are taking the strong side of the possible victim. I wonder if they look at the accused and based on other information that might not hold legal merit about the priest and take that into consideration. If for example he is known to be homosexual which the church knows if active is gravely disordered. If this is the case, it could prove interesting going forward.

  • jh

    Let me make one other point. If you notice this level of proof does not seem to be applied to lay people that work for the Church. If it was that would be all over the papers and have to be announced too.

    As I keep pointing out. There seems to be a different standard for Priests and Lay folks (teachers, CCD teachers, Younth “ministers” Coaches, Lay folk in Missionary work ).

    And it seems the ever pointing finger Laity is well just fine with that. It’s a problem.

    Now I think we have made strides in our prevention programs to screen out problematic Catholic lay folks that might be a threat. But they will be treated different as to accusations. Partly because they have lawyers that will sue the Diocese

  • Max Lindenman

    jb: If what you say is true, that’s a little alarming. According to Ryan, when a board decides that an accusation has “a semblance of truth,” then it’s “probably true.” I can see where that would prejudice the judges at the canon trial.

    I’m torn on this one. Judge Learned Hand said it’s better for ten guilty men to go free than for a single innocent man to hang. Should the same principle apply where the peanlty won’t include hanging, and where those ten guilty men might emotionally scar countless kids? I would have to say no.

    There must be some happy medium.

  • Bender

    No standard or definition exists for “credibly accused””??

    Nonsense. Only if one is seeking to reinvent the wheel, which, unfortunately, that is exactly what they have done in too many of these cases.

    There is an extensive body of law providing a definition for “credible accusation,” including in the setting of accusations of child sex abuse.

    Then again, there is an extensive body of law on things like statutes of limitation and presumption of innocence and burden of proof, which everyone has been all too eager to toss out the window.

  • Dan

    It all depends on the nature of the accusation.

    If a guy is accused of having a fling with a woman, ————— that’s not unheard of in Church history, ——– it’s dealt with and all move on.

    But if we have predatory homosexuals, ————– that’s another matter entirely. Such creatures should be made an example of and promptly tossed, summary court martials come to mind.

  • Paul

    I work as the Promoter of Justice (prosecutor) for a Catholic diocese. My job is procescuting priests accused of sexual abuse.

    The exact language of Canon 1717 is that the accusation at the minimum seems true (saltem veri similem). This means that a very generous attitude is to be taken towards the accusation, a low threshhold to begin the inquiry. Remember, this is what launches the preliminary investigation to obtain the basis facts and to see if there are clear inconsistencies, e.g. the priest never was stationed at that parish. As that investigation proceeds, and the truth of the accusation grows apparent, more evidence is collected until there is sufficient evidence to present to the diocescan review board.

    The practice, at least in my diocese, is: if there is an accusation, it is investigated. There always has to be that follow-up to an accusation.

  • Gail F

    In our archdiocese, anyone who made an accusation got a settlement if he/she could show that she and the priest were in the same place (and by place I mean that the priest was not in another city or state, not that they were in the same building) at the same time. That’s it. There was no way to prove anything about most of the claims, they were so old. So I guess the lawyers decided to just go ahead and pay something to all claims, unless what they claimed was absolutely impossible. Many accusations were absolutely impossible — the priest accused was in another place entirely at the time of the allegation. So if there were a lot of impossible claims, there must have been claims that were possible but false. It made me very angry that people were being rewarded for lying, but I suppose that was the only way anyone could think of to ensure that people who weren’t lying would get paid.

    We have several priests here who, as far as I know, have never been exonerated of such accusations but claim to be innocent — including at least one who died that way. It is a travesty.

  • Anne B.

    Gail F., are you in Chicago? Because what you’re describing sure sounds like the situation here, where a “credible accusation” meant “accuser is breathing, and walks on two legs.”

  • cathyf

    It’s not just a question of whether the accusations are “credible” but what exactly the accusations ARE. In a particular case I know about (my parents’ former pastor) the priest was removed from ministry for a hug that was “inappropriate”. According to the accuser’s story, this act happened in public, and none of the witnesses reacted at the time — and when a few of those witnesses were tracked down and questioned, none of them remembered anything untoward happening.

    In the Philadelphia cases, there are several which are described as “boundary violations”. Unless they are being “cute” with the phrasing (which would be outrageous given the seriousness of this) they are destroying people’s entire lives over behavior which is merely obnoxious, not abusive.

  • Deb

    I believe with children, it is very hard to have always totally credible evidence, but many times people think they know all the evidence and they don’t.

    For instance, you might hear a woman said a priest did somethng to her or someone else and that priest is gone…but what you don’t know is that “insiders” knew about other things and other accusations and this was the last straw. Many times people, not just priests are let go because of what seems flimsy, but to protect their reputation as much as possible, other things aren’t told.

    Just a thought, because I notice on a lot of forums, newspaper blogs, etc., people lash out and don’t really know the whole story and may never. The person accused may never tell either, and that is their perogative, but sometimes it’s not what it seems on the outside.