Posted: 13 Sep 2011 09:00 PM PDT
Note: This is Part II of a two-part post. Click here to read: “SNAP Judgements Part I: Catholic Priests Among the Public Ruins.”
SNAP promotes a lucrative version of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, but is it accurate? And is it really victim advocacy? Not all victims see it that way.
In “SNAP Judgements Part I” last month, I wrote of the murder of Father John Geoghan about seventy miles from here in a Massachusetts prison in August, 2003. He was beaten and strangled to death by a young, attention-seeking prisoner eager for fifteen minutes of fame. But I also attributed this murder to a daily barrage of hateful rhetoric from members of SNAP and Voice of the Faithful. I stand by that assessment. It was an example of “Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal” that reverberated deeply into my own prison as the news media pondered at the time whether I might be next.
Catholics are morally responsible for their public rhetoric whether they know they are or not. As I wrote in “When the Gloves Come Off on Catholic Blogs,” the Internet can make us feel as though we are not responsible for our words, but that is just an illusion. Catholics using the sex abuse crisis to inflame public opinion share moral responsibility for what they sow.
“Geoghan got exactly what he deserved!” That was a sentiment I read over and over again in comments in both secular and Catholic media, but is that assessment grounded in reality? What, exactly, did this elderly priest do to land in prison? Has enough time finally passed to apply some good old fashioned reason to this matter instead of the decade of blame and hysteria incubated by SNAP and VOTF? That remains to be seen, but I’m going to attempt it.
There was a time in American history when Catholic reason was deeply respected in a religious environment characterized by Puritan judgement and outrage. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter reflects a drama that was Puritan to its very core, but could not happen in a Catholic arena. That time is no more. Some of the loudest American Catholics have adopted Calvin’s view of their priests and brothers, and that view is reflected in “zero tolerance” and the millstone of the Dallas Charter, both largely influenced by the bishops’ collective 2002 bow to the rhetoric of SNAP.
I see the Father John Geoghan case very differently than most of you do. There is no doubt that he was “Ground Zero” of the American Catholic sex abuse scandal. He was accused in claims for financial settlement by over 130 individuals. The claims linked both waves of The Scandal, those brought by the families of children at the time they were alleged to have occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, and others – the majority of them – brought only decades later by adults making their claims retroactively.
Only one person testified under oath in a trial of fact prosecuting criminal charges against Father John Geoghan. “Court TV” (which has since morphed into “TRU-TV”) carried that trial live. “Court TV” was a favorite among prisoners, and just about every prisoner here watched every minute of the Father Geoghan trial.
The men around me in this prison also see the Catholic sex abuse crisis very differently than most of you do. They know predators and can artists, and most prisoners can easily spot them. They see both permeating the Catholic scandal. As a result, prisoners concur – rather amazingly – with the findings of former Los Angeles District Attorney Donald Steier who declared in a bombshell on The Media Report that fifty percent of the claims against priests have been frauds brought forward for settlement money. Prisoners saw the case against Father John Geoghan with an already jaundiced eye toward fraud.
A WITCH HUNT TAKES SHAPE
So I was not at all surprised when prisoners came one after another to my cell door during “Court TV’s” coverage of the Father Geoghan trial. After some incredible testimony from the accuser, they showed up during commercials to ask, “Are you watching this?”
I was watching it, and I heard what they heard. The twenty-something-year-old accuser testified that a dozen years earlier, when he was eleven, he was in a public swimming pool. He said that he recognized Father John Geoghan as someone who had visited his housing project. While trying to climb out of the pool, the young man testified, Father Geoghan came up behind him and, under the guise of helping him to climb out, squeezed his buttocks.
Based upon this testimony, the 68-year old priest was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to nine years in prison. It was a death sentence. Civil liberties experts and other commentators bravely risked public ridicule by reprimanding the sentencing judge and declaring that this sentence for this crime was a subversion of justice. They said that John Geoghan was convicted and sentenced for his reputation and not this one crime, and criminal justice 1n America isn’t supposed to work this way. Mob justice has no place in American courts.
Am I defending Father John Geoghan? Not at all. Do I doubt that this accuser told the truth? Not at all. The behavior ascribed to Father Geoghan was consistent with what scores of others said of him, and an egregious example of how much his own reasoning and judgement skills had deteriorated. The Church had a responsibility to protect young people from John Geoghan and a responsibility to protect Father Geoghan from himself. Church officials failed on both counts. I don’t question the truth of any of it.
But when Court TV aired that one accuser’s testimony, the prisoners around me cried foul. Every one of them howled in laughter at that young man’s claim that he suffered a decade of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the buttocks-squeezing incident by Geoghan in a public pool. If media statistics are accurate, this same young man had witnessed thousands of violent murders and countless sex acts on television by the time he was 15, and yet the Catholic Church somehow owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars just because he and his contingency lawyer surfed the abuse wave at just the right time. “If the Church pays for such a sham,” the prisoners around me said, “anyone could point a finger and hit the lottery.” One prisoner summed it up thusly:
“Let me get this straight. If I say some priest touched me funny 20 years ago, I’ll be paid for it; I’ll be a victim; and my life will be HIS fault instead of mine! Do you have any idea how tempting this is?” (”Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud,” Catalyst, Nov. 2005).
This has been one of the great challenges of my seventeen years in prison. How do I explain to men who have never really had a chance in life, men emotionally and spiritually crippled by the most unspeakable abuses and exploitation from others, that someone who had his buttocks squeezed by a Catholic priest gets a lucrative check while they get only prison and society’s revulsion? After reading “Pornchai’s Story,” or Skooter’s story in “The Tale of a Prisoner,” how would any of you explain to either of them why their plight has been ignored by everyone while that young man who accused the elderly Geoghan is richly compensated?
Mediated settlements of unprovable claims have to date cost the U.S. Catholic Church $2.6 Billion. But SNAP’s national leaders would have you believe that none of this has been about money. In an article by Brian Fraga in Our Sunday Visitor this week (“Report questions motives of victims’ groups,” Sept. 11) SNAP National Director David Clohessy defensively dismissed any attempt to address the group’s lucrative hysteria with reason. “The easiest way to dismiss a message that’s uncomfortable is to impugn the messenger’s motives,” he said. However, the true agenda of SNAP was more honestly expressed by a member who spat in Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s face and declared that he “would not rest until there was a ‘going out of business’ sign in front of every Catholic parish, school, and outreach center.”
Even in 2002 when these claims were in the headlines, some notoriously tough prosecutors and victim advocates raised the alarm about false claims, but were ignored. Even Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has written blistering articles about Catholic scandal, cautioned that false claims are finding their way in among the true accounts.
In “Phony cases a danger in abuse battle” (Boston Globe, August 5, 2002), Kevin Cullen quoted former prosecutor and victim-advocate Wendy Murphy, a long-time champion of victims’ rights, who cautioned that false allegations hurt the legitimate claims of many. “It’s not like insurance fraud started yesterday,” she said. “The incentive to lie for money is real.”
Kevin Cullen cited some false claims that were demonstrably frauds – some against Father John Geoghan himself – and quoted former prosecutor, now defense attorney Timothy O’Neill, who had defended several accused Boston priests:
“What’s happening here now is that there is an impetus to settle cases before a priest confronts his accuser. That’s a problem … How does the process react in the face of huge publicity? Not well, I’m afraid. The full story needs still to be written. At this point, priests have no voice.”
That was 2002, and now – nine years and $2.6 Billion later – the toll of stripping the right of defense from accused priests is evident. Justice itself has been the greatest victim of the hysteria surrounding the Catholic sex abuse scandal. To begin to understand its depletion of justice in the Church, please read again “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?”
SNAP AND THE OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE
The problem for justice is that in the United States, civil claims are measured with a standard called “preponderance of evidence.” That standard of evidence is not the same as “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard that ideally applies in criminal trials.
In claims against priests, however, these standards of evidence apply only in rare cases. The vast majority of claims against priests end in mediated settlements. This is an important point. Evidence in these cases is never tested and rarely is it even looked for.
As Attorney Timothy O’Neill pointed out above, the priests have no voice. Claims against them are simply settled by their bishops, and then sent to the Holy See as “credible” claims leaving priests with no defense. What makes them credible? In most cases, nothing but the mere fact that they were settled.
Settlement of a civil claim is not supposed to be taken as a statement of either guilt or culpability for the accused in a criminal case. This is why the late singer, Michael Jackson could be acquitted in a criminal trial and still opt to settle a related civil case as described in “Pop Stars and Priests.” It is also how Baptist Bishop Eddie Long could retain his ministry and position even after his congregation chose to settle with the accusers I wrote about in “Why Accusers Should Be Named.”
For Catholic priests, however, settlement IS a declaration of guilt. SNAP and VOTF have for years inflamed this picture by promoting civil claims against the Church and then equating their settlement with criminal guilt on the part of both priests and their bishops. When this process is questioned, SNAP leaders declare that such reasoned legal distinctions “re-victimize the victims.” As such, SNAP and VOTF have obstructed justice.
I miss EWTN. It was once available in Comcast’s basic cable package to which prisoners in Concord, New Hampshire can subscribe, but now prisoners here no longer have access to it. That’s a shame because it was very popular among Catholic prisoners for the short time it was available. I especially liked “The World Over” with Raymond Arroyo, and have much respect for him. So I was surprised when a few TSW readers sent messages to tell me that on August 25th Catholic League President Bill Donohue appeared on “The World Over,” and urged viewers to read These Stone Walls.
Among the reasons for Bill Donohue’s appearance on “The World Over” that night was to announce a landmark report by The Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights entitled “SNAP Exposed: Unmasking the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.” In an August 22 press release, he described the report:
“This report puts an end to the debate over the real motives of those involved in the victims’ lobby. SNAP, along with Bishop Accountability and the lawyers they work with, are an agenda-driven movement that uses victims, real and alleged, to smear and sunder the . . . Catholic Church. Not only do they entertain conspiracy theories that are themselves disturbing, they are not above lying, [and] the way they intentionally seek to manipulate the media is utterly shameless. SNAP has finally been unmasked.”
I was unaware of the content of The Catholic League report on SNAP when I wrote “SNAP Judgements Part I” posted August 24th on These Stone Walls. Yet they contain very similar assessments of SNAP’s present demeanor toward the Church, the priesthood, and especially real victims of abuse. This was among my own comments:
“It’s time to cease giving any credence whatsoever to groups using ‘victimhood’ to mask a devious agenda. In just about every news account of Catholic scandal since 2002, the news media gives the last and loudest word to SNAP … whose spokespersons stand ever ready to condemn the Catholic Church, the priesthood, the bishops, the Pope, and even Catholics in the pews for still being Catholics in the pews ••• It’s time to stop listening to SNAP. This group surrendered its moral credibility when it confused justice with vengeance by promoting only the latter. [SNAP] advocates for a never-ending state of victimhood for its adherents. That is not true advocacy.”
But don’t take just my word for this. I happen to know that These Stone Walls is read by a growing number of real victims of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis who are not at all pleased with the witch hunt ignited in the Church in their names. As so many of them have pointed out to me and others, no one should be more offended by the growing number of false, money-driven claims than real victims of sexual abuse. One of them – “D.M.” – recently posted this comment on his own Facebook page with a link to These Stone Walls:
“Sexual abuse by clergy is a real problem. This is a sin that cries to heaven for justice. BUT – there is another side of the coin that is equally important yet almost universally ignored. This concerns priests who have been falsely accused. Father MacRae is one such priest. As a survivor of abuse by the hands of another priest, I encourage you to read These Stone Walls with an open mind and heart.”
Father MacRae is brought up at the 41:00 mark, and the actual segment begins at the 32:14 mark.
Editor’s Note: Several of you have expressed a desire to join Fr. MacRae in a Spiritual Communion. He celebrates a private Mass in his prison cell on Sunday evenings between 11 pm and midnight. You’re invited to join in a Holy Hour during that time if you’re able.