Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Balancing the Rights of the Accused & Need for Victim Protection, Empowerment

One of the unfortunate things with everyone having a phone with a camera, video capability, or access to social media is that in an instant, a person’s reputation can be quickly ruined. Sometimes it’s something taken out of context like a tweet or a remark on Facebook; other times it’s the small snippet of a video we see; or other times it is the poison of gossip which can spread like wildfire thanks to social media.

The point of this article is not to be political, but to discuss a current example that has been quite shocking to me how it has unfolded.

About a month ago, Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to be on the Supreme Court. And recently, the debate has not been about his judicial opinions or actions as a judge, but about what may or may not have happened when he was 17 years of age at a party he allegedly attended.

One person claims an assault. The only issue is multiple people have refuted this. Judge Kavanaugh claims he was not even at the party. In fact, the person alleging the assault, Christie Ford, has no one to back up this claim. In fact, all of the individuals that she said were at the party, including Kavanaugh, Mark Judge, classmate Patrick Smyth, and her own longtime friend, Leland Ingham Keyser — have denied knowledge of the episode. Another accusation suddenly cropped up, from 35 years ago, about something that may or may not have taken place at a college party. Somehow these accusations never came up when Judge Kavanaguh was confirmed already as an appellate judge.

By all accounts Judge Kavanaugh, a Catholic, is an honorable family man; a lector at Mass; a youth sports coach; a volunteer at his parish in serving food for the poor.

Does this mean that something did not happen years ago? Not at all. The allegations may or may not be true. But unfortunately, it seems more a matter of partisanship, as the very people arguing against Judge Kavanaugh as being guilty don’t seem to be talking much about the allegations against Keith Ellison.

The situation which has been in the news is indicative of a greater problem that we have in society. Actually, it’s a two-fold problem. On the one hand, we have some who are accused quickly. Think for a moment if your entire life were caught on tape. Or if a person didn’t like you started making accusations against you on social media. It wouldn’t be long before your reputation too could be destroyed. But, on the other, we have people who felt silenced because they felt no one would believe them. So how can we have a balance that takes an allegation seriously, but also respects the right of the accused? If someone is exonerated can that person still be seen as innocent?

In a society that is based on the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” it seems that this may be less and less the case. I am especially aware of this as a priest; as I’ve written before, it’s why I take extreme precautions never to put myself in an awkward situation. The confessional has a window; my office has a window; I’m never alone with a minor, and would only meet with someone of the opposite sex alone on parish grounds or in my office, unless of course it were a visit that were a sick call or to a hospital or family. But certainly there is the fear. What if someone did not like me to the point where they wanted to destroy me or level an accusation against me that was not true? To be sure there are people who hate priests out there; even in parishes, I would not put it past an angry or mentally unbalanced parishioner to do something like this because they thought I was too liberal or too conservative, or didn’t like some parish decision. (If you want to see an excellent movie about this, I’d suggest the underrated Hitchcock film “I Confess” from 1953. I’d also suggest “Twelve Angry Men.”). Many others find themselves in the same situation; police; teachers; public officials, youth sports coaches. Where does one draw the line and find the balance?

First and foremost, anytime we suspect abuse a person must be protected. Never for a second think “well he/she might not be guilty” if you fear someone might be in danger. Call the police immediately. No questions.

Second, it is very true that a person may have not reported something from years ago. Case in point, victims of clerical abuse. Anyone who abused should be brought to justice. And a person should not fear coming forward, even if it was many years later. One of the good things to come from the “MeToo” movement is that women who were victims of sexual harassment have felt empowered to come forward and say “I will be silent no more.” This should apply of course to all people, for abuse is not limited to gender or age. Certainly, if you were harassed or abused, report it. Seek therapy. And hold the abuser accountable no matter who they are. You are created in God’s image and should always be respected and treated as such. Abuse is abhorrent.

Third though, what happens when there is an accusation? (And I’m not just talking abuse, sexual harassment but with anything such as a drinking problem, infidelity, etc). My hope is that clear heads will prevail. The accusation should be taken seriously. But there is a reason news media, at least until recently, did not name people who were not charged with a crime. Unfortunately I think what can happen is a personal opinion of someone can influence how they see their guilt or innocence. If the accusation has merit, there should be an investigation. For instance in cases of clerical accusations, there is a report to the police, and also an investigation by the archdiocese official, Tim O’Malley. But I truly believe that the Kavanaugh accusations are more about politics than anything else; and were the tables reversed, and he were a Democratic-nominated justice, I would not at all be shocked to see Republicans on TV claiming “well he’s probably guilty of something.” But this also applies at the micro level; there are people we just might not like. Maybe a person got a ticket and does like the cops; maybe a parent has a teacher they think are “out to get” their child; or maybe a person really never much cared for their neighbor. If any of these people were accused of something, being human our personal feelings about them could easily cloud our judgment.

In the Old Testament, I always found it interesting how much the name of God was respected; no one speaks the name of God; it’s why to this day Jewish people typically do not use “Yahweh.” A name was sacred; to know a name implied power over that person. Our names are sacred too. And sitting on both sides of the confessional as a confessor and a penitent, I can attest that people do things they are not proud of, including the author of this article. We must hold people to a high standard. We must make sure any victim is empowered to not be afraid to speak up. But we also must remember that our judicial system is based on a presumption of innocence, and more than an accusation is needed, namely evidence, and that goes for things that never make it to a courtroom.

My hope is that Judge Kavanaugh is given that opportunity for any accusation to be proven. But as I said, this article is not about Judge Kavanaugh. It’s about the importance of finding the proper balance between a rush to judgment and a need to make sure victims are empowered to not be silent. I don’t have all the answers, but hope that we can as a society find the right path.

Blessings,

Fr. Paul