Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It is sometimes unjust to defend the presumptively innocent

Information has surfaced that two deceased luminaries of the Catholic Church, Mother Teresa, a candidate for sainthood, and widely respected scholar Father John Hardon, a candidate for beatification (a first step toward sainthood), publicly defended a priest named Donald McGuire, whose case, according to the Catholic paper Our Sunday Visitor, "is among the most appalling in the annals of clerical abuse."

In 1993, a California family that had lodged an accusation against McGuire agreed to accept Father Hardon’s evaluation of McGuire's guilt or innocence.  McGuire admitted to Hardon that he had taken showers with and getting body massages from a teenage boy, and that he was letting the boy read pornography in the room they shared on trips together. Nevertheless, Hardon concluded that his fellow Jesuit's actions were "objectively defensible," albeit "highly imprudent," and told McGuire's bosses that he "should be prudently allowed to engage in priestly ministry."

Mother Teresa had far less evidence about McGuire's conduct when she wrote to McGuire's provincial after McGuire was suspended from his priestly ministry: "I understand how grave is the scandal touching the priesthood in the U.S.A. and how careful we must be to guard the purity and reputation of that priesthood. I must say, however, that I have confidence and trust in Fr. McGuire and wish to see his vital ministry resume as soon as possible."

Father Hardon's pronouncement likely made it easier for McGuire to continue his abuse of teenagers. It is not clear what effect Mother Teresa's statement had, but it certainly didn't diminish McGuire's opportunity to rape.

It is unfair to impute bad motive to either Mother Teresa or Father Hardon even though both made assessments that turned out to be spectacularly wrong.  Their defense of Father McGuire seem motivated, in large part, by charitable impulses; namely, loyalty to a respected friend.

Standing by a friend who claims he's been falsely accused of a heinous sex crime, or who claims she was raped, is generally benevolent and admirable.  But a person who is held in high esteem because of his or her accomplishments or position needs to exercise far greater caution in publicly pronouncing a person's innocence or guilt.  Most should avoid doing it altogether. Even the experts trained in such matters are often wrong. 

It is hurtful to persons who've been wrongly accused of heinous sex crimes and their families when someone in a position of authority makes pronouncements assuming his or her guilt; it is also hurtful to rape victims and their families when someone in a position of authority makes pronouncements assuming that no rape occurred. 

Prudence and charity often require that such public assessments be withheld because of the risk of getting it wrong.

Sources: http://www.sfweekly.com/2012-01-11/news/mother-teresa-catholic-church-john-hardon-donald-mcguire-child-abuse-jesuits/ and http://m.osv.com/Home/Article?itemId=9159&ref=rss