What does 'credibly accused' mean? 6 things to know about Texas Catholic dioceses' sex abuse inquiry
By David Tarrant And Julieta Chiquillo
Dallas Morning News
October 14, 2018
| Bishop Edward J. Burns leads a Ceremony of Sorrow on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018 at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Dallas. Following the service, the first of four town halls was held to address the current crisis of sexual abuse by clergy, including allegations of sexual abuse by the former pastor of St. Cecilia Catholic Church, the Rev. Edmundo Paredes. |
Photo by Ryan Michalesko
With a stated goal of restoring trust, all Catholic dioceses in Texas announced plans last week to release names of clergy who have been "credibly accused" of sexual abuse of children since 1950.
But the announcement, billed as a unique transparency measure, raised further questions about the possible legal implications, the independence of the investigation and the meaning of the phrase “credibly accused.”
Victims’ advocates say they've heard it all before. Catholic dioceses in Texas, including Dallas, have been rocked for years by allegations of sexual misconduct and cover-ups. And the advocates don't have faith that the dioceses will come completely clean.
"It’s pretty much obvious that the Catholic Church cannot be trusted to police themselves," said Tahira Khan Merritt, a Dallas-based lawyer who has represented plaintiffs in lawsuits against the church in Texas for more than 20 years.
In Texas, state authorities can’t step in as they have in Pennsylvania and elsewhere unless local authorities want them to do so. But Annette G. Taylor, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Dallas, said the diocese has hired a team of six outside investigators made up of former FBI agents and other law enforcement experts to comb through the personnel files of priests who have served in the diocese since 1950.
Church officials say the team provides expertise and independence. But, Bishop Edward J. Burns said, “this can’t be left to the hierarchy of the church alone.”
“I welcome the collaboration and the critical eye of people concerned with the protection of children,” Burns said.
What does “credibly accused” mean?
Burns promised that the criteria for what constitutes a credible accusation will be published when the state’s 15 dioceses release lists of names no later than Jan. 31.
Burns said the term "credibly accused" means "that we would believe it is true that an abuse has taken place." Even without a criminal conviction, an investigation can determine if the accusation is “plausible,” he said.
John Manly, a California-based attorney who specializes in cases involving sexual abuse of minors, said Catholic bishops have often used the phrase “credibly accused.”
“I can tell you what it means — it means they’re going to leave out people they don’t want to give you,” he said.
Manly said a California diocese ignored prior warnings and allegations about a priest in Stockton, Calif. In 2012, a jury in a civil case found Michael Kelly liable for sexually molesting a child. Kelly, however, fled the country; the diocese of Stockton settled the case for $3.75 million.
Paul Petersen, of the Dallas chapter of the victims advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said in a prepared statement that “credibly accused” is just “a dodge.”
“Church officials are not the arbiters of what is credible and what is not, especially since there have been many cases ... where accusations deemed ‘not credible’ actually turned out to be very real,” Petersen said, citing cases in California, Buffalo and Kentucky.
In his Wednesday news conference, Burns acknowledged that the church must prove itself to the skeptics.
“The church is definitely in crisis. There’s no doubt about it, and we do need to rebuild this church,” he said.
Burns said after decades of dealing with the sexual abuse issue, the church needs to "take some significant steps.” He said the first step for anyone reporting sexual abuse is to contact law enforcement, and then the church.
Where did the term originate?
U.S. bishops met in Dallas in 2002 in the aftermath of the Boston sexual abuse scandal and other high-profile cases involving clergy. One such case was that of Rudy Kos, a Dallas priest found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on child sexual abuse charges.
During the gathering, the bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which ordered that allegations be reported to law enforcement authorities. If the bishop — with input from his diocesan review board — determined the allegations were credible, the priest could be removed from the ministry. But the definition of “credible” was not spelled out, according to experts.
The Rev. Kenneth Lasch of New Jersey — a nationally recognized expert in the church’s legal system and victims advocate — said each diocese gets to decide how to carry out the charter’s intentions.
Pat Svacina, a spokesman for the Fort Worth diocese, agreed with the assessment.
“Each bishop can define what’s credible is in his own terms,” he said. “I think the definitions will be similar but they may differ in some ways.”
The Rev. Tom Doyle, another expert in church law and a prominent victims advocate, said ultimately the bishop in each diocese is the final arbiter of what is a credible accusation. The bishop, Doyle said, "runs the whole show."
What has been done elsewhere?
In 2007, the Fort Worth diocese started publishing on its website the names of the credibly accused priests.
The year before, after a 19-month legal battle, The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won release of the diocese’s personnel files on seven priests accused of sexual abuse. The files showed that the diocese hid information about predators from police and the public for years.
The Fort Worth diocese says the current process starts with an initial confirmation of facts, such as whether the accused and the victim were at the same place at the same time.
Bishop Michael F. Olson makes the final determination “in consultation with the Diocesan Conduct Review Board,” according to a statement released by the diocese.
On its website, the Fort Worth diocese includes wording that a “credible accusation” is not the same as a legal finding that abuse actually occurred. “Rather, it is a finding that there is reason to believe that the alleged abuse occurred,” the website states. The level of certainty is “a lesser standard than that required by our civil or criminal legal systems,” the site says.
But for the most part, the list includes names of people who were convicted or named in lawsuits and news stories.
Others are keeping track, too. The first such list was posted by the Diocese of Tucson in 2002. And Terry McKiernan, co-founder of the watchdog website Bishop-Accountability.org, said the group gathers the lists of the accused that are released by dioceses and religious orders. Currently, the website includes about 4,500 names of priests that have been identified either by the church, a law enforcement agency or a media organization.
Burns said the team of outside investigators' examination of the Dallas personnel files will yield a list that includes familiar names that have already been convicted or have appeared in news stories.
But he added: "I think there will be some names that will be a surprise to people."
Could the accused claim defamation?
Publicly naming priests who haven’t been officially charged with a crime raises questions of due process. But McKiernan said transparency is important because it prevents the church from simply transferring accused priests from one parish to another as it was known to do in the past.
Dallas civil trial attorney Randy Johnston said Catholic dioceses risk defamation lawsuits over the release of names. But the attorney said he’d be surprised if someone actually sues because defamation cases are “incredibly hard” to win.
Johnston also pointed out that a priest could be inviting even more unwanted attention by going to court.
“You are basically recirculating the very rumors or story that you didn’t want told in the first place,” Johnston said.
And the key to a defamation lawsuit is showing that a statement is false, that others believed it and that it harmed a person’s reputation, Johnston said.
A diocese saying that a priest was “credibly accused” of sexual abuse is not the same as calling him or her a pedophile, the attorney said. And the diocese would have a strong defense if it shows that it conducted a reasonable investigation into the allegation, Johnston said.
“The church is going to have a layer of protection wrapped around them that they are attempting to act in the public’s best interest here, and it’s not like they’re just jumping out and making an accusation wildly for some personal or political gain,” he said.
What can the state do?
Some state officials have launched investigations of their own.
In August, a scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report alleged that at least 1,000 children were victims of sex abuse by more than 300 priests over the past seven decades and that the church hierarchy either turned a blind eye or actively engaged in cover-ups.
Right afterward, SNAP, the victims’ advocacy group, released a statement calling for "every state's attorney general [to] follow Pennsylvania's lead and launch formal investigations."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Oct. 4 that her office had set up a website for people to report past sexual abuse. Bondi also said authorities are preparing to issue subpoenas in the case. The state counts 2 million Catholics.
A recent survey of the 49 other states and the District of Columbia by the The Washington Post found that state laws varied widely. Only a few granted powers to the attorney general to convene statewide grand juries with subpoena powers.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a prepared statement that his office is ready to assist any local law enforcement agency or district attorney’s office that asks for the state's help. But he said, under the state constitution, “original criminal jurisdiction over these types of matters" belongs to local district and county attorneys.
The Dallas County district attorney’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.
Will criminal consequences result?
Texas has no statute of limitations for sexual assault of a child, indecency with a minor or continuous sexual abuse. But if authorities decide to investigate the accused priests, they may run into some problems.
Criminal defense attorney Toby Shook, a former Dallas County prosecutor, said the first challenge will be locating the alleged victims and getting their cooperation. Then law enforcement has to decide whether those allegations can be prosecuted.
Authorities lean on children’s advocacy centers to vet claims of abuse made by minors. Carrie Paschall, chief investigative officer of the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, said forensic interviewers are neutral parties who try to elicit sensory details from a child, such as how things looked, smelled, felt or tasted.
“We don’t determine ‘yes, this child was abused’ or ‘this child was credible,’ but we pull those details out because they do lend credibility to a child’s statement, to assist investigators with knowing what direction to go,” she said.
But Shook said unless authorities identify several victims to bolster claims against one person, moving old cases forward could be tricky.
“Generally, the more time that passes, it’s more difficult to prosecute the case,” he said. “The interesting thing that may occur here is that once names become public, there might be added pressure on victims to cooperate, or other witnesses may come forward.”