How could the bishops of Kentucky get it so wrong?

It’s partly another consequence of the sexual-abuse crisis, wherein the protocols for handling allegations have created an environment where immediate action precedes investigation. That post-Dallas Charter culture is well-known inside the Church, but can be a bit surprising when encountered by the general public.

And it was only because there was video evidence to exonerate the students that the bishops were forced to reverse themselves. Otherwise, an investigation would have ground on for weeks or months while the students’ reputations were effectively destroyed. That would not have been an accident, but business that now is usual.

Still, despite the quick exoneration, it was a very bad week for the boys of Covington Catholic High School. It was a worse week for the bishops of Kentucky. It is a terrible thing to be the victim of slander due to rash judgment. It is morally worse to perpetrate slander because one is guilty of rash judgment.

The bishops of Kentucky were lightning-quick to condemn the conduct of the Covington Catholic students after the March for Life. The Diocese of Covington, led by Bishop Roger Foys, and Covington Catholic High School condemned the students the very day the original video came to light, without waiting to view the entire recording or even hear alternative explanations.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville piled on within hours. Later in the week, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington wrote an entire op-ed for his local paper, castigating the boys for their general political views, while declaring that whether they had been falsely accused or not was secondary.

It was an error-ridden performance, acutely embarrassing for Kentucky Catholics.

More than embarrassing and unjust, it might be costly. On Jan. 24, lawyers for Nick Sandmann, the young man at the center of the controversy, served Bishop Foys with a “preservation of evidence” order, laying the legal groundwork for a libel suit against the bishop, part of what they promised was a “multitude of civil lawsuits” to come.

Bishop Foys issued his public letter of apology the next day.

Archbishop Kurtz, who associated himself with the initial rash condemnation, likewise associated himself with the apology. Bishop Stowe has made no public comment on the mistreatment of the Covington students by the media or the Church.

So how could it have happened? Why were the bishops so eager to condemn the alleged behavior before it was possible to make any further inquiries? Why did they have more sympathy for accusations from strangers than they did for their own Catholic schoolboys?

It is necessary to understand that the Dallas Charter has had an impact beyond its immediate requirements. The unforgiveable sin for a bishop who receives an allegation of sexual misconduct is any delay in reporting it — to civil authorities and to his own diocesan review board. The only requirement is that the allegation be “credible,” which does not mean “plausible” or “probable,” but only possible and not obviously false.

And immediate consequences for the accused priest follow. He can be removed from his parish, suspended from ministry and thrown out of the rectory within 24 hours. None of this is to be understood as a canonical punishment; they are “precautionary” measures only. But for the wrongly accused it can feel like the sentence comes first, with the trial to follow.

While the limitations of these protocols are well-known, they have been widely accepted, largely because false accusations are rare. More to the point, severe measures that do not allow for any discretion on the part of bishops are precisely needed to make up for the credibility lost in previous decades, when allegations were effectively ignored or covered up and priests guilty of misconduct were not punished.

The purpose of the Dallas Charter was not only to enhance the protection and safety of minors, but to effect a culture change when there were allegations, or even suspicions, of sexual abuse. The protection-and-safety measures have been massively successful; the incidents of priestly sexual abuse have fallen so dramatically that in some places it has been many years since any allegations, founded or unfounded, have been made.

The culture has changed, too. The days when a bishop would automatically believe “his” priest over the allegations of a layperson, a journalist or even the police are long over. Indeed, there are now cases where both law enforcement and the lay-led review panels judge an allegation to be unfounded and still the bishop is reluctant to return a priest to ministry. The pendulum swings and still seeks for the center.

The Covington Catholic controversy met a new culture among the bishops of Kentucky. They were ready to give credence to the allegations of others over the protestations of innocence from “their” own. They were quick to raise the specter of punitive sanctions, including expulsion. They were quick to be as public as possible, lest they be accused of hiding anything.

Those are the Dallas Charter instincts. And they extend well past bishops to parish priests, schoolteachers and camp counselors. If you see something, say something — preferably as soon and as loudly as possible.

That new culture has achieved a lot of good. But it makes things worse for the falsely accused. And, in this case, for the bishops who falsely accused them.

 

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.