The Personalist Project

I keep thinking about the present crisis in the Church and the wider society in personalist terms—especially in terms of the master/slave dynamic. 

Today I'm ruminating on that time-honored, bedrock legal principle "innocent until proven guilty." The Pope invoked it last week in response to those pressing him to act on a recent allegation.

Francis was asked about a petition calling for the resignation of French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, who is facing criminal prosecution for allegedly failing to act on a case of abuse.

The pope deflected part of the question and never mentioned Barbarin. He said that if there are “suspicions, evidence or half-evidence,” there’s nothing wrong with launching an investigation, but always upholding the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty.

He's right that it's really important to keep in mind that not everyone who's accused is guilty. I recall a particular case I read about in the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report that came out several years ago. There was a graphic account of a priest molesting an altar boy in the sacristy after morning mass. It was stomach-churning. But later it came out that the priest had been serving at a completely different parish at the time. His alibi was rock solid. It also came out that the young man in question had a history of mental illness and bogus claims. The priest was innocent.

False accusations are a real problem. In the last few years alone, we've seen case after case in the news of women lying about having been raped (see here and here and here, for examples), or blacks and gays and hispanics staging hate crimes against themselves. It's horrible. Innocent people are unjustly maligned, law enforcement's time and money is wasted, social tensions are exacerbated, and, worst, we all get that much more skeptical toward real victims.

That's one problem, but there's a bigger one on the flip side only now coming to light. Between the abuse scandals and the #metoo movement, we're waking up to the fact that  part of the injustice victims suffer is that they're too often not believed. To tell what happened to you is to be accused of lying, or dismissed because it's a "he said, she said" thing. Especially if there's a power differential involved, you might get instructed not to cause scandal or find yourself accused of pushing an agenda or of having been seductive or manipulative or out for money, or whatever. Your story is denied or doubted or minimized or covered-up. Often your reputation is smeared too, blatantly or discretely. "She wanted it" or "pray for her; she's got issues."

A case from the Philadelphia grand jury report haunts me. A young boy told his father that a priest had molested him, and in response his father beat him nearly unconscious for having a dirty mind. "Priests don't do that!"

I remember with misery that many years ago, when I was editor for an opinion journal at Francisican U., a man I was in email contact with (he was studying online for an MA in theology) told me that he'd "uncovered a ring of homosexual priests in St. Louis." My spontaneous reaction was to cut him off. I assumed he was some kind of nutcase pervert. I wanted nothing further to do with him. Only years later did I learn (from reading the book Sacrilege) that there was, in fact, a ring of homosexual priests in St. Louis. I've wondered ever since how many other "good Catholics" slammed their doors in his face when he tried to tell them the truth.

Think how many of us (including St. John Paul II) took it for granted for years that Maciel's accusers were liars attacking the Church. Imagine what that must have been like for those men. First they're abused by a priest they'd been taught to revere as a saint. Their lives are ruined, and then, when they work up the courage to report what happened to them (for the sake of preventing further abuses), they're spurned as enemies of the Church by pious Catholics the world over. 

Several friends have shared personal stories with me that follow the pattern. They're abused, and then they're blamed. Countless victims never tell their stories because they're too sure they won't be believed. A typical tactic of abusers is to tell their victim: "No one will believe you." Often, to say you were sexually abused is to be presumed mentally ill.

I myself have never been molested, but I've been abused in other ways by Catholic men in power and then "shut down" in ways big and small when I tried to tell my story. Not only was I not heard, I was presumed culpable. I must be exaggerating. Or I must have been partly responsible. "There are always two sides to these stories." Many people—former friends and family even—explicitly preferred not to know what had happened to me. They seemed to think it was virtuous to assume everyone involved meant well and the whole thing must have been no worse than a misunderstanding. When I pressed for truth and justice, I was "corrected" and judged bitter and unforgiving. 

For me, this was a worse suffering than the original abuse. So, I recognize the silencing pattern from my own experience. I understand how victims come to decide that it's better for them not to say anything. To speak up is to invite further abuse.

I just read an article in Crux, about what the Church is learning by paying closer attention to victims:

The president of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection said most of the victims of clergy sexual abuse whom he has met primarily want the Church hierarchy to listen to them and understand the depth of their suffering.

“All concur in this, that the most important single element in a possible healing process, is being really listened to … all say this is the starting point,” Jesuit Father Hans Zollner told The Catholic Weekly, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, during an interview in late August.

I'm glad he said, "starting point," since listening isn't the same as seeing to it that justice is done. Still, it's an indispensable first step.

In light of all this, I'd say there's a problem with the "innocent till proven guilty" principle, wouldn't you? It gives abusers a moral and legal edge over their victims. It means, in practical effect, that unless a victim can prove her case, she's assumed to be lying or exaggerating or hysterical or whatever. He's assumed to be innocent.

I don't favor tossing that principle out. It's too important. It's especially important for mitigating the power differential between the State and the individual.  What I propose, rather, is that we balance it in both law and custom with a new and complementary principle: A presumption of veracity on the part of victims.

What I mean by that is that we make a careful point of not approaching those who claim to have suffered abuse with skepticism. Rather, we should begin by assuming they're sincere. We should listen to them as we would to someone telling the truth—not "what they imagine," but what actually happened to them. We should ask them the kind of questions we'd ask someone who was simply telling the truth.

So, no questions that subtly suggest blame on their part or doubt on ours: "Were you drinking?" or "What were you wearing?" or "Do you think you're maybe overreacting?" or "Are you sure he wasn't just trying to be nice?" 

Instead we should ask things like, "Are you okay?" or "How can I help?" "Tell me what happened." We should offer support and sympathy, not skepticism. Our efforts to get more information should be motivated first and foremost by a desire for truth and justice, not the urge to poke holes in her account.

A couple of points in closing:

1. I'm talking about victims, not any and all accusers. I mean that the "presumption of veracity" needn't extend to anyone who utters a charge at whatever remove from the event. So, for instance, Archbishop Vigano does not claim to be the victim of abuse. Rather, his accusations are based on what he's heard from others or what he suspects, not what he experienced personally.

2. A presumption of veracity doesn't mean we have to keep believing the victim no matter what emerges from an investigation. Just as a trial can establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt, despite the presumption of innocence, a proper investigation can uncover false allegations and establish innocence, despite the presumption of veracity. The stories of false accusations linked above offer concrete examples of how it happens. 

The presumption of innocence is a necessary corrective to the power differential between the state and the individual. The presumption of veracity is a much-needed corrective to the power differential between abuser and his (or her) victims. It should be conscientiously woven into our response to injustice on both a personal and a societal level. It should be codified in ecclesiastical and secular law.

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Comments (3)

Rhett Segall

#1, Sep 12, 2018 8:05am

Katie, your point about balancing the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" with the principle of "the veracity of the accuser" is persuasively and clearly presented. I would add the following qualifier: the balance does not mean 50/50. greater deference has to be given to the accused because h/she has so much to lose even if they are innocent. The Bible has classic examples of people falsely accused without due process, Joseph by Potiphar's wife and Susanna by the elder judges. And more to the point even if the accused is found innocent there is always the lingering doubt in people's minds that the accused "got away with murder.". In other words the accused reputation is always damaged. This surely is involved in present accusations against Pope Francis. Even if "he's as clean as a hound dog's tooth" his reputation is clearly tarnished and will probably be impossible to repair. But your essential point on honoring the veracity of the accuser cannot be gainsaid. It is a tough balance demanding a great deal of tact and prudence and sense of justice  to achieve. And a great deal of courage on the part of the victims!

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Sep 12, 2018 9:25am

Rhett, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I love the story of Susanna especially.

I don't see the issue quite as you do, though. First, victims of abuse have already lost quite a lot. The difficulty they have securing justice adds to their losses. And even if a victim is ultimately vindicated, her reputation is usually deeply damaged in the process of trying to get justice. This, again, is something I've observed often and have experience personally. To claim an abuse is to have your reputation smeared, including by "good Catholics." "She has an agenda." "She has mental health issues." "She's incompetent. She's only in that position because of nepotism." It's really ugly. 

And, as I said in the post, many of us actually think we're being virtuous when we shut our ears to the oppressed. We think we're being wise and moderate in "giving the benefit of the doubt" and assuming good motives on the part of the accused. We don't even notice that we're trashing the victim when we do that. The victim we don't even see. 

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Sep 12, 2018 9:25am

Second, I don't agree that greater deference is owed to the accused. We are right to assume an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. We are equally right to assume a claimant is telling the truth until he or she is shown to be lying.

It's not a matter of weighting the scales in one direction or another. It's a matter of how we treat persons. All persons. Each person.

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