Due Process for Priests

By Walter R. Hampton, Jr.
Hartford Courant
March 24, 2002 from

There is a forgotten side to this Enron-style meltdown within the Roman Catholic Church: the employees - the priests - themselves. The church has gone from hiding them to booting them. Neither is the right answer.

Not that there is an easy answer. This sex scandal is of monumental proportions. I know: I was a seminarian once. The moral authority of the church has been damaged, perhaps irreparably. But this crisis is not solved by indiscriminately disseminating the names and addresses of those accused or by sending names in bulk to states' attorneys. There is not a pedophile in every rectory.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed. I am a criminal defense attorney. I have represented more than a dozen priests accused of pedophilia. I represent one now at the center of the controversy. I will not divulge his name here. It would serve no purpose.

This priest has denied the allegations. He has never been charged with, let alone convicted of, a crime. There has never been a civil verdict entered against him. Yet the diocese for which he has worked has paid out substantial sums of money to make the allegations against him go away. He has been appropriately disciplined by his superiors. And he no longer ministers to the people he was once called to serve.

My job is not to judge this priest. My job is to defend him. Have we lost sight of what our Constitution provides to each of us? Are not we all presumed innocent until proved otherwise? Shall we simply send these priests to the stake without any judge or jury? God knows, the internal workings of the church provide little or no due process.

We as Americans believe that through due process the truth emerges. Whether in the workplace or in the criminal justice system, without due process, how can we know the truth?

I represented a priest who got no due process. He was an older gentleman. He was working in a large, wealthy parish in a warm climate. It was a reward for years of faithful service. Back here in Connecticut, an allegation arose. Father's superiors immediately removed him from his parish without any investigation whatsoever. They institutionalized him for 30 days, subjecting him to drugs, therapy and testing. When he got done, his superiors placed him on administrative leave until, through the work of our investigator, it became clear that the priest and the alleged victim were not in the same parish at the same time. The allegations were withdrawn. The priest is now serving out his years in a small rural parish not far from the Canadian border.

And let us not forget the allegations levied against the late great prince of the church, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. The allegations of abuse haunted the last years of his life and, although recanted, they became part of his history. There was no due process.

So what is the answer?

Clearly, it cannot be found in finger-pointing. An esteemed colleague of mine at the Connecticut bar, whose work I admire and whose work it is to defend the church, has argued that priests are "independent contractors," not employees of the church for whom the church should be responsible (that is, liable). A clever defense, but one that appears quite silly when viewed from the pews. And one that does nothing to restore confidence in the church or respect for the priesthood it espouses.

Clearly, the answer cannot be found in building more stone walls. The veil of silence behind which the church has stood is now a tattered remnant. Yet Boston's Cardinal Law still professes that the rules of an orderly society do not apply to him, for he is neither politician nor corporate leader. His defense is arrogant.

A sense of accountability on the part of the church would be a beginning. The church needs to open its structure to the laity. The faithful need to become part of the decision-making processes at the highest levels. And yes, women need to be included.

Changes must include the training of healthy candidates for the ministry. They must extend throughout a church that takes responsibility for its actions and is accountable for its mistakes, both to its members and to the public at large.

Pedophilia is a dysfunction, an illness. Those who suffer ought to be treated with compassion and respect. Those who transgress ought to be punished. But none of us should be engaged in the wholesale lynching of priests in general or those who have been accused in particular.

Enron hurt a lot of people. Many lost their life's savings. The hurt that the church has perpetuated, though, has cut to the very soul. Many have lost their life's faith.

Through due process and accountability, perhaps the church can begin to heal the devastating wounds it has inflicted. Perhaps with light, we can see with the eyes of truth.

Walter R. Hampton Jr. is a graduate of St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield and
Cornell Law School. He is a criminal defense and trial attorney in Canton, Connecticut and a practicing Catholic.


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