The Corner


‘Me Too,’ the Catholic Sex-Abuse Scandals, and a Double Standard

The Divine Redeemer Catholic Church in Mt. Carmel, Penn., August 17, 2018 (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

In January 2002, the Boston Globe ran its first of what would be hundreds of articles on the history of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the local diocese, raising public awareness of the problem in the Church nationwide. Four months later, the U.S. bishops met and hammered out a rapid response: the Dallas Charter — formally, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Since then, the number of allegations against priests in the United States has been a little less than 2 percent of what it was at the height of the crisis, in the late 1970s. Slightly less than 18 reports per year have been filed for abuse that was alleged to have been committed by Catholic clergy in the period 2000–17. The figure was approximately 1,000 for 1980.

The numbers have been on a steep decline since then, falling to approximately 75 per year by the late 1990s. The data for this century are consistent with a decades-long trend. We see no sudden or dramatic change in that downward slope since the release of the charter, but allegations of new incidents had already begun to hover closer and closer to zero, so the room for improvement was limited.

What we can say for the Dallas Charter era, 2002 to the present, is that it has seen the Church succeed at keeping the incidence of alleged abuse at a low plateau and even at lowering it a little further. (Again, only a little because the plateau was already so low.) Meanwhile, we’ve seen a sharp spike in the number of reports of abuse or misconduct alleged to have been committed last century — reports filed with law enforcement as well as reports filed with Church officials.

We have no way of telling how much the Dallas Charter contributed to those developments, the decline in reports of new incidents and the rise in the number of reports of historical abuse. The main driver here could be the explosion of media attention since 2002.

In any case, give due credit to the charter at least for the increase in the number of reports specifically to the police. One of the stipulations of the document is that, before launching internal investigations based on an accusation, diocesan officials are to report it to civil authorities — who almost always report back that the case is not prosecutable, because they can find no evidence other than hearsay (and often not even that) and the testimony of the accuser and the accused. All the same, thanks to the charter, the principle has been established that the diocese notify the police, without delay.

After law enforcement reports that it found insufficient evidence for its purposes, the case goes back to the diocesan review board, most of whose members are laypeople. They launch an investigation if they find that the accusation has a “semblance of truth” — i.e., that it’s “not manifestly false or frivolous.” The bishop removes from ministry any priests or deacons whom the board finds guilty of even one instance of “abuse” (an elastic term, which I’ll explain below). At many steps along the way, the board reports to the bishop and the bishop decides, but in practice that protocol is often treated as a formality. The board members do the heavy lifting, and the bishop seldom gainsays them.

The charter provides helpful structure. Before, each bishop was left either to decide each case on an ad hoc basis or to draw up his own general procedures. The authors of last summer’s grand-jury report in Pennsylvania were scathing in their judgment on the Church, but even they admitted that, “on the whole, the 2002 Charter did move things in the right direction.”

So I disagree with Declan Leary when he writes that “the major procedural reforms (e.g., the Dallas Charter) have mostly been ineffective and highly controversial.” Again, we have no objective way to measure the charter’s effectiveness, but then we have no objective way to measure the effectiveness of “cultural adjustments,” either, or of seminary reform, which Declan thinks were more important. The Church has made progress that has coincided with the release and implementation of the Dallas Charter. Make of that what you will. I think the charter has been pretty good. Although it can’t be imported wholesale by bishops in other countries, which have different legal systems, it serves as the Church’s best available model of a systematic plan for handling sex-abuse allegations.

Insofar as the charter is “controversial,” it’s for reasons that you have to like if your criticism is that Church officials have been soft on clergy sex abuse. The bishops write that the accused are “to be accorded the presumption of innocence during the investigation,” but the practical effect of the charter has been to give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser. In November, I discussed some of the difficulties raised by the low standards of evidence that are the rule on diocesan review boards in the United States.

“The effort was made to get to the truth and not be a court of law,” Frederick Thieman explained to a reporter for Pittsburgh’s diocesan newspaper last year. A former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Thieman has served on the review board of the Pittsburgh diocese since 1997. He was describing the 15 cases in which he’d been involved:

The standards for evidence that we applied were relatively loose. . . . Evidence [e.g., hearsay, or even hearsay on hearsay] that would not have been permitted or may not have been permitted in a court of law was permitted into the review. . . . I doubt a lot of cases would have made it into the courtroom. Certainly not a criminal court. Quite likely not even a civil court. . . . We applied a “semblance of truth” standard. So that is much lower than even a preponderance of the evidence.

“The cases were extremely difficult in the sense that there were oftentimes complicated factual situations,” Thieman added. “Cases were often many years old and people’s memories were understandably not as precise as they might have been.”

The Dallas Charter is vague, on the question of what the standards of evidence should be and on the question of what kinds of conduct should be deemed “abuse” and punishable. A case of “inappropriate touching,” for example — the Pennsylvania grand-jury report is full of such — might not make it into a criminal or civil court even if compelling evidence for it were found. As for evidentiary standards, a friend who served on a review board for a religious order for several years confirms for me that, in effect, accusers were presumed to be telling the truth and that only in rare cases did the board conclude otherwise.

That poses a dilemma for those of us who defend, in general, the standard of “innocent until proven guilty” in cases of alleged sexual abuse but then defend (without acknowledging what we’re doing) the converse, “guilty until proven innocent,” in the particular case of Catholic priests. “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”: What if we applied that principle, Blackstone’s ratio, to the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church? Wouldn’t most priests who, in the Church’s eyes, have been “credibly accused” have to be found innocent, against our intuitive judgment? Conservative Catholics especially tend to be sensitive both to the excesses of the Me Too movement and to corruption in the Church. We need to decide whether we want Blackstone’s ratio to apply in the Church cases too. I think most of us don’t. If we want to apply a double standard, we should say so. We should call it what it is.

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