May 11, 2012
Media reports often presume accused priests are guilty until proven innocent, doing irreparable damage to the lives of the wrongly accused.
David F. Pierre, Jr.
When a Catholic priest is publicly accused of the crime of abuse, it is typical for the media to trumpet the name of the cleric, while allowing the accuser to remain completely anonymous throughout the ordeal.
Although this situation is not unique to Catholic priests, it is a practice that clergy have frequently griped about in private, and it is an issue that has received almost no public attention.
For example, last August in Hawaii, a criminal jury took just minutes to acquit Father Bohdan Borowec, a Ukrainian Catholic priest on vacation from Canada, of charges of kidnapping and sexual assault stemming from an incident alleged to have occurred months earlier. Father Borowec had never had any other accusations of wrongdoing against him in decades in ministry.
Throughout the process, Father Borowec had his name and picture plastered across media reports as a “priest charged with rape.” Yet never did the media publish the woman accuser’s name.
Following the exoneration of his client, the priest’s attorney, Shawn A. Luiz, spoke to theHawaii Catholic Herald and pointed out this glaring double standard. “In cases of being falsely accused, the priest’s reputation is effectively destroyed while the accuser, on the other hand, enjoys anonymity and suffers no loss of reputation or negative material consequences,” Luiz said.
Luiz’s remark may have been a rare instance of such an observation being aired publicly, but it surely is a topic that has been discussed frequently among priests.
Rev. Roger N. Jacques was among the clerics swept up in the avalanche of sex abuse claims in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002. It took nearly four years for the previously unblemished priest to clear his name following a bizarre abuse accusation stemming from a claim of “repressed memory” uncovered through hypnosis.
During the ordeal, Father Jacques saw himself vilified in the media as a “credibly accused” priest, yet his accuser’s name was never made public.
When the Church finally exonerated the priest in 2006, the Archdiocese of Boston had already issued a sizable payment to the accuser as part of a group settlement. The accuser kept the money that was awarded.
Father Jacques believes allowing accusers to remain anonymous opens up the opportunity for fraud.
“The cloak of anonymity sets up dioceses as easy targets,” says the priest.
Victims’ advocates stand behind anonymity
Yet those who work on behalf of victims of clergy abuse see several good reasons for accusers to remain anonymous.
Joelle Casteix, the Southwest Director of the advocacy group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), believes the nature of the crime of child abuse justifies accusers remaining anonymous if they wish.
Being a victim of child abuse is incredibly traumatic and carries an enormous feeling of personal shame and embarrassment, Casteix says. Victims also fear that coming forward could put their careers in jeopardy or position them as targets for retribution.
Most importantly, Casteix says, anonymous accusers have made it possible for abusive clerics to be removed from ministry and made the Catholic Church a safer place for children.
“It’s so hard to admit that someone hurt you. It’s even harder to understand that it wasn’t your fault. But if it weren’t for the John Does, there would be tons of perpetrators out there,” says Casteix.
A standard practice
Indeed, court systems allow sexual assault victims to have their names appear on court papers as “John” or “Jane Doe.” Although all involved parties are fully aware who the anonymous individuals are—a defender has the legal right to face his accuser—the court believes that the lurid nature of sex crimes is good reason to protect individuals from public identification. The occupation of the defendant is irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the media has followed almost the exact same practice. While nothing really prevents them from identifying those who accuse priests of abuse, news outlets believe that the profound shame, embarrassment, and trauma of sexual victimization warrant that individuals remain anonymous. And the media has applied this custom across the board, regardless of the profession of the accused.
In other words, the media is not singling out Catholic priests in not identifying their accusers.
However, some observers point out that the circumstances under which Catholic priests are accused are different from those of other reported sex crimes.
When the media reports on the case of a regular citizen accused of a sex crime, it is almost always because the police have arrested that person based on compelling evidence of contemporaneous wrongdoing.
However, the cases of Catholic priests have almost always entailed allegations of something that happened decades ago. And, most often, the news story relays a civil lawsuit alleging the abuse. Such lawsuits are rare against other individuals in society.
A journalist breaks with tradition in Philadelphia—for a while
However, one journalist who temporarily broke with the long-held practice of keeping accusers anonymous is veteran investigative writer Ralph Cipriano, who is currently covering the high-profile abuse trial of priests in Philadelphia for the Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog.
Cipriano has seen “blatant discrimination” in the naming of accused priests and the broadcasting of vivid abuse accusations while keeping the accusers anonymous.
“I have been writing stories critical of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for 20 years,” Cipriano has written. “And yet, I feel if the accusers are going to come into open court, they should be named.”
Therefore, for the first month of the trial, readers of Cipriano’s blog saw something that they would never find in their local newspapers or television broadcasts: the names and ages of the witnesses testifying in Philadelphia.
I cannot believe the media is granting anonymity to one group of legal combatants, the accusers, and yet naming all the alleged perps…
No matter what we think of the defendants, they are presumed innocent. To confer victim status on an entire group of accusers seems indefensible. Especially since some of them will follow this criminal trial with civil cases.
Can we say with certainty which ones are telling the truth, and which ones aren’t? I can’t presume to judge. And when I asked the [Philadelphia district attorney’s] rep what if some of the alleged victims are lying, she looked at me as if I was from Mars…
I am afraid by granting favoritism to an entire class of legal combatants, namely the alleged victims, at the expense of the alleged perps, the media is creating a simple black-and-white story line—sobbing victims confronting evil predator priests—that is far too simplistic for what is playing out daily in [Philadelphia’s] Courtroom 304.
The novelty of reading accusers’ names on Cipriano’s blog did not last long, however.
Cipriano’s policy was met with considerable backlash. A representative from Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office accused him of “violating the victims a second time” by publishing the accusers’ names.
After complaints from the prosecution, SNAP, and from law enforcement, the sponsor of Cipriano’s blog, a law firm specializing in litigation, decided that the names should no longer be displayed. Cipriano then re-edited all of his previous posts, removing the previously published names of the accusers.
So now the trial blog is adhering to the same practice as the rest of the media: anonymous accusers, named priests, stomach-turning details.
Online database or anti-Catholic resource?
Many Catholic priests also continue to take exception to a Massachusetts-based site called Bishop-Accountability.org, which purports to “catalog” the Catholic Church abuse crisis. The site’s central focus is its extensive, high-profile database of “publicly accused” priests.
The site’s disdain for the Catholic Church and its priests cannot be overstated, as it relentlessly seeks to post the names and pictures of any accused priests it hears about, no matter the strength or context of the allegation.
For example, a person could invoke the widely-discredited theory of “repressed memory” against a previously unblemished priest who is long deceased, and the site will include the priest’s name and picture in its readily available database of “publicly accused” Catholic priests.
After he was fully exonerated and restored to ministry in 2006, Father Jacques made efforts to have his name removed from Bishop-Accountability’s public database, but to no avail.
The innocent priest repeatedly reached out to the organization. Even after meeting with the leaders of the group and showing all of the documentation demonstrating his innocence, the site’s operators would not budge. To his great dismay, Father Jacques remains labeled on the World Wide Web as someone “publicly accused” of molestation. The priest joins several others who are listed on the site even though their accusations proved to be unfounded. The website shows no signs of changing its one-sided practice anytime soon.
As for the media, Catholic priests who maintain their innocence continue to face the difficult task of refuting decades-old charges against them while encountering a system which is all-too-willing to relay the lurid allegations. It is indeed a challenging ordeal for accused Catholic priests.
About the Author
David F. Pierre, Jr.
David F. Pierre, Jr. is a journalist who operates TheMediaReport.com and has written two books: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, The Fraud, The Stories andDouble Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church.