Here – read this excerpt from an article in today’s Guardian newspaper and tell me what your immediate reaction is:
‘There is something deeply disturbing about the all-too-predictable manner with which one malicious accusation can destroy a priest’s reputation, career and ultimately his way of life…We live in a world where even informal hints of wrongdoing can spin out of control and destroy careers. The most flimsy of accusations are sufficient to incite a bishop to suspend a priest while the case is investigated. But even if the case is dismissed as having no foundation in reality, the accused priest still has to contend with the ‘no smoke without fire’ brigade. Moving to another parish is one option for the exonerated priest. Unfortunately some leave the priesthood altogether. False accusations against individual priests have a frightening impact on the profession as a whole. In a sense the status and reputation of the whole profession is on trial when one of their members stands accused. Time and again priests tell me of their concern about being accused of inappropriate behaviour or of sexual misconduct’.
I’m going to guess you felt indignant as you read this – why focus on the wrong done to the clergy rather than to their victims? You might even have been a bit surprised, that someone should have written in defence of the Catholic clergy. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of articles condemning the impact of clerical sexual abuse; virtually none on the impact false accusation may have on individual priests and Catholic clergy in general.
And the truth is, this article isn’t considering falsely accused priests either. It’s actually dealing with accusations against the teaching profession – I’ve simply substituted ‘priest’ for ‘teacher’, ‘bishop’ for ‘head-teacher’ and ‘parish’ for ‘school’.
So why don’t we see articles drawing attention to the equally damaging effect of false accusation on priests? Because an atmosphere verging on witch-hunt has been created. The great majority of journalists have run with it, listing the clerical sins of abuse and cover-up, joining in the cries of condemnation. None of them that I have read has had the courage to admit the possibility of false accusation, let alone explore its effect. Shame on those priests who’ve abused innocent children. Shame on those journalists who’ve been afraid to even whisper the words ‘False accusation’.