Tuesday 22 October 2019

Wrongly accused are often left with lingering wounds

There are few crimes more revolting than the abuse of a child.

Naturally, an allegation of child abuse provokes public outrage and anger. So it's hard to imagine just how devastating it must be to be wrongly accused of abuse.

A priest who hits the headlines when he is accused of abuse can justifiably feel aggrieved when little or no attention is paid if he is declared innocent or found to have no case to answer.

As has been demonstrated in numerous reports, the Catholic Church, when confronted with allegations of abuse against clerics over many decades, failed to act.

The devastated lives are a constant reminder of this cowardly reaction.

But the current church procedures for dealing with abuse allegations are now acknowledged by all fair commentators to be extremely robust.

All suspicions or allegations of abuse are immediately reported to the civil authorities, and the priest in question is named publicly and suspended from his ministry.

Tragically, the vast majority of abuse allegations levelled against priests have turned out to be true.

A consequence of this is that the general public all too often believes that an allegation of abuse against a priest is true before it has even been investigated by gardaí or the PSNI.

Research carried out last year for the Iona Institute by Amárach Research found that nearly half of the public (42pc) believe that more than one in five of priests are guilty of child abuse. The most authoritative estimate to date puts the true number of accused priests at 4pc.

In these circumstances, to be a priest victim of an unfounded allegation of abuse amounts to what can be described as a personal hell.

A man who, up to the point the allegation was made, has an impeccable reputation is suddenly cast out of his home. His income is cut off; he is alienated from his fellow priests and often receives little or no support from his bishop or religious superior.

Church leaders, fretful about their past mishandling of abuse allegations, have too often swung to the opposite extreme, where an accused priest is presumed guilty until his innocence is established.

And it doesn't stop with the legal process. There are currently about a dozen priests throughout the island of Ireland who have been subjected to allegations where the civil authorities have concluded there is no case to answer or that they have been found innocent in court.

These men are still awaiting word from their bishop or superior on when they can return to active ministry. While they can rightly claim that their reputation and character has been vindicated in the civil sphere, the slow pace of church procedures can sometimes lead to further suspicion.

Some priests who have been victims of unfounded allegations have told me of the heartbreaking pain of feeling that their family members have treated them as subjects of suspicion.

An unfounded allegation of abuse is a wound from which one never fully recovers.

Michael Kelly is deputy editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper and on Twitter @MKellyIrishCath

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