A case in point
This story of a nightmare was written at the request of Compass. It illustrates the vulnerability of priests at the moment and how difficult it can be to respond to accusations.
AS I CELEBRATE my sixtieth year of life—thirty of them as a priest—you could be excused for imagining that I bask in satisfaction, with a life well-spent, and many years left to carry on the public ministry of God’s work. All this would be true if it hadn’t been for one telephone call I received on the 6th October 1994. As I prepared breakfast in the presbytery kitchen the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was the congregational leader of a teaching order whose responsibility was the school to which I served as chaplain/teacher. He ‘invited’ me to come and see him and when pressed he explained that a complaint had been made against me.
I left the spoon in the cereal bowl, got in my car and drove the fifteen kilometres to face the allegation with my only companions fear and shock. No one can convey to the uninformed the effect such procedures have on the individual. At the time I was fifty-two, quite successful in what I did as a teacher and chaplain. I was supposedly a mature adult, highly intellectual—more than a match for any inquisitor—but years of training to acquiesce swept all this away and I was rendered incapable of defending myself: prepared to admit anything just so it would all go away. I cannot believe that those who use these procedures are unaware of the way in which they are using power. Is it something activated by elevation to the episcopate or election as a congregational leader?
The subject of these procedures is rendered helpless. No matter whether they are guilty or innocent techniques are used, hopefully unwittingly, that the secular authority is not allowed to use. If I have been taught to believe that God speaks to me through my superiors and if my superiors act on this assumption they are in possession of a great power and to abuse it would be a heinous crime.
On a lighter note I am reminded of the old joke of the priest who was speaking with his bishop. During the course of the conversation the priest remarked he had picked up a hitchhiker who told the priest many black things he had done. He wasn’t a Catholic and the priest decided on a course of action. The bishop asked, ‘What did you do?’ The priest replied, ‘I did what Christ would have done.’ Shocked, the bishop responded, ‘You didn’t!’
This is always an amusing story, but it contains a sombre note. In dealing with an accused priest or religious, can it be asserted that the Christian tradition of compassion holds sway or is there rather an over-the-shoulder glance at what the insurance companies, lawyers and media say? How many of our spiritual leaders are prepared to die with the accused: seeing priests as extensions of their own priesthood? It has been reported that some bishops are prepared to do this even if it means going to gaol. Regrettably these leaders do not use English as a first language.
Upon arriving at the order’s HQ I was ushered into the leader’s office and confronted with the accusation. A doctor, who has since been thoroughly discredited, had informed him that a patient of his had admitted to having a sexual relationship with me. The patient was concerned that he might be a homosexual. The person concerned was overage but the doctor took it upon himself to inform the order’s leader. Later on the doctor would inform the patient’s mother and set in train a course of events that would eventually lead to a trial where I was found not guilty. I had been charged on the basis of a seven day window - the difference between 17 years 358 days and 18 years.
As we discussed the situation and the leader accepted my ‘resignation’ from my position with his order, a Herod/Pilate thing occurred and I was whisked across town to be dealt with by the archdiocesan ‘expert’ in these matters. Remember that I still am in a state of shock. I was offered no advice and invited to contact no-one to support me as I was further interviewed by an ‘I-am-a-priest-too’ interrogator. I was pumped to reveal any accomplices I may have had in these matters. I was asked if I had ever done anything like this in my life before, name and number—the same questioning as before, the use of power as before. As an aside I never saw this priest again. I had one desultory telephone call, the tone of which concerned itself with what the police might do and not how I was feeling. After making an appointment for me with some ancient nun—to address the shock issues—I was driven back to the order’s HQ and told that things could only get better from now on. They didn’t.
I drove back to the presbytery and informed the PP of the day’s events. He expressed amazement that I had not told him of the call and that I had gone instantly without seeking any advice or inviting anyone to go with me. He immediately advised seeking legal advice and nominated two lawyers who were conversant with these situations and their legal ramifications. He took me in for an interview with one and was told I had nothing to answer but to let him know if anything developed. This man offered me more pastoral care than I had so far received and would highlight the fact that those who were of the greatest help to me were generally non-believers and ordinary people.
I dutifully trotted along to the ancient nun who just managed to fit me in as a favour to someone. She had me at a disadvantage; the shock and hurt were still with me and she listened, I thought, in confidence to what I had to say. Later on I would learn that certain parts of what I said to her were related to my priest interrogator.
[Apropos from this interview] I went to see a more professional psychologist. I attended sessions with him, one a week for thirteen weeks. After this he sent a report to my diocese. Whilst understanding the gist of its contents, I never saw the report.
Flowing from removal from the active ministry I was cut off from any form of income and was obliged to find a new place of residence. Thus I was confronted with no money and no place to live plus the possibility of some form of legal action being taken against me. I petitioned my diocese for some financial assistance—just to live. They graciously agreed but over two months had gone by and I was penniless.
I felt I could tell no one of my plight. I was happy that my mother and father were dead and didn’t have to endure the disgrace that they would feel. My own self-image baulked at telling my friends, a misery I endured for some time before confiding in friends from a parish in which I had served. They immediately sent an air-ticket and an invitation to stay with them indefinitely. Other friends were supportive but made sure that I hadn’t interfered with their children. Again I had great support from the ordinary foot soldiers of the order that had employed me.
I gathered enough strength from their support to attempt to train myself for a new career. I took an intensive course in records management and shortly after that found employment. It was during this employment that the police eventually decided to take action all based on the window of opportunity mentioned above. The police realizing the flimsiness of their case added six charges that were so ludicrous that the magistrate threw them out at the pre-trial hearing. Thus I was to be tried on one charge, having sexual intercourse with an underage male. After an initial hiccough my employment was maintained and I faced the prospect of the legal process, at least with the possibility of paying for a defence. However, I was entirely unaware of the costs involved and even though the legal firm whose services I used gave me a special rate the cost of defence was very high. Nevertheless after a legal procedure that lasted approximately eighteen months I was found not guilty by a jury of my peers.
I led a reasonably acceptable life for another two years until one Friday upon return from work I received another telephone call from the police of a large country town informing me that I was the subject of a complaint made by a person I did not know concerning events that had occurred twenty-one years previously. In contrast with my previous experience I was informed by the police that they would come to me for the interviewing and charging. The policeman was courteous and helpful; he advised me to get legal counsel and inquired if there was anyone with me at that time. Later on my barrister informed me that the policeman concerned believed in the principle of treating accused people on the basis of how he might feel if he were in my place. Nevertheless the initial statement of my accuser was changed four times, each new version making the allegations appear more serious.
I was interviewed and charged at a local police station in an extremely relaxed and informal manner. One policeman discussed my medication history confiding that he himself was on similar dosages. Another commented to me about the panic similar, he thought, to the ancient witch hunts. After the formalities of charging the charging officer shook my hand and asked were there any good restaurants around. I record these events contrasting the different procedures adopted by the religious and the secular authority.
I was still in debt to my lawyers with the first legal action. Now I was charged with two counts of inappropriate touching the actual location of which was the subject of the varying statements of the accused. It went from his initial statement where the knee was the appropriate area of concern to an area more likely to shock a jury.
Once again the horrid process got underway: the pre-trial with the same magistrate as previously—the decision that there was a case to answer and the eventual trial. The difference this time was that there was more than one trial. The first was aborted due to the accused uttering something in evidence that he was told not to. The second involved a hung jury. The third was a problem. I now had run out of money and was not eligible for legal aid. At one stage it appeared that I would have to represent myself. At the last moment a barrister was found who was willing to do it gratis. However he disagreed with everything that my previous barrister had done. Phrases like ‘I wouldn’t have handled it this way’ and ‘Let’s hope there are some Catholics on the jury’ didn’t give me much hope of a favourable outcome. In addition he attacked the accuser in such a way that could only endear him to the jury. What little hope I had was smashed when I was found guilty. Later on I was to be sentenced to two years gaol to be served under a bond.
A disinterested observer remarked to me that he thought the alleged victim had engineered the aborted trial. Either he had advice to do so in order that he might obtain a more experienced prosecutor than the one he currently had, placing pressure on me to maintain my financial outlay ($3000 per day) for the one I had, who was considered the top man in his field. I stress that this was not my opinion, but highlights the possible successful outcome of an appeal. The accused received $24,000 from the Victims’ Tribunal—an amount that the government would later on try and retrieve from me.
I was now a bonded criminal and after the bond had expired, a criminal. My debts were astronomical and I had to take further action. I was forced to declare myself bankrupt. I was then at that time a suspended, bonded, criminal, bankrupt priest. I am now a suspended, criminal, bankrupt priest. Legal advice told me that I should have appealed and that a successful outcome was more than possible. But I had no money and therefore had to wear the verdict.
As a footnote to the above, my position that I had held for five years was declared redundant and I was out of work. I received a payout but all of it was subsumed by the various debts I had incurred over the period of my legal actions. I applied and got a very well-paying position that lasted for three weeks until they found out about the criminal record. I hasten to stress that it was nothing to do with children or young adults. I was dismissed and found that I was now unemployable in the various areas I had trained myself in. I was now an unemployable, suspended, criminal, bankrupt priest.
I now live in a large terrace house where I have to sublet rooms to whoever is willing to pay what I ask. Invariably my tenants are young, irresponsible and addicted to some or a number of illegal substances. They are loud and disrespectful of the house and its chattels. Week after week I struggle to get them to pay the rent on time, to be conscious of the need to clean, to buy universal supplies. Tragically I have become responsible for three cats who are the only bright spot in an otherwise stressful household. They truly are God's healers. So therefore I cannot complain—it helps me pay the rent. Maybe it takes my mind away from considering myself worthless. I am a ‘legally branded molester’ who effectively has a life sentence that will be only terminated by a happy death.
I contribute to this edition of Compass not to seek sympathy. I have become a pariah and no amount of denials on my behalf would change the majority opinion that I got what I deserved. What I have written is addressed to those who are responsible for the treatment of the accused. Do not create two victims from the various scenarios that come before you. Remember that through ordination and election you have a responsibility to both the accuser and the accused. The disgraced priest presides over the demise of his ministry of service. There are so many good things that even justifiably punished priests have done in the service of their vocation and their church that no amount of disgrace can take from them. They should know for certain that Christ and His Holy Mother will never ever desert them. This coupled to the knowledge that the Church into which they were ordained so many years before does not forget them no matter what they may have done.
- 8th September, 2002