May 12, 2002
Forgive, maybe, but don't forget

Another op-ed in today's Chron is this plea for forgiveness for priests accused of sexual misconduct:

The pastor of my parish has been removed because of a recent allegation that 35 years ago he committed an act of sexual misconduct involving a teen-ager.

In fact, I don't believe the allegation, but it seemed important to ask myself: What if the allegation were true? Would I still support the Rev. Kenneth Nee, who served Our Lady of Fatima parish in Manorhaven, N.Y., and be upset about his removal from his position, the parish and our lives?


The risk of recidivism is a strong argument for removing from ministry priests who have been guilty of sexual abuse. But it is a strong argument only in those cases where there is a risk of repeat offense. The mere fact that someone committed an act does not mean there is risk he will do it again. I am not talking about pedophilia, which clearly presents an ongoing risk. In cases, however, that involve newly made accusations of a single act that occurred 20 or 30 years ago, there seems no risk of repeat offense. The fact that the priests in question have effectively ministered their parishes in the intervening years without any further allegations of wrongdoing testifies to that. The absence of repeated offenses testifies to the fact that some acts of sexual abuse against minors are the product of a moment of sin and not pathology.

So, if not fear of recidivism, what is the argument for removing from ministry a priest who many years ago committed a single act, as heinous as the act may have been?

The author, a law professor and mother of a 9-year-old daughter, wants to know why one as-yet-unproven accusation of abuse from many years ago justifies the removal of a priest who has otherwise served his parish well. She invokes the Catholic message of redemption heavily:

So, if not fear of recidivism, what is the argument for removing from ministry a priest who many years ago committed a single act, as heinous as the act may have been?

Is it that we expect priests to be sinless? [...] Can a church built on a belief in Christ deny the possibility of redemption and refuse to forgive?


Some may dispute this phrasing of the issue, arguing that we are not talking about whether to forgive, but simply whether to allow the priest to continue his ministry. That distinction is lost on me. If we forgive, if we accept the possibility of redemption, what is served by removing the priest?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but the scandal currently embroiling the Church is not just about the actual abuse. It's about the long-term conspiracy to silence accusers and shelter abusers. It's about silent payoffs and palming predators off on unsuspecting parishioners miles away. It's about the fundamental breach of responsibility on the part of the Church hierarchy.

So my short answer to this author would be: How do you know that this is the only allegation? How would your opinion change if an actual investigation led to other charges? How many alleged victims would have to turn up before you'd be willing to put the interests of criminal justice ahead of the interests of redemption and forgiveness?

Let's assume for a moment that the accusation is true, and that there are no other incidents. I'm not sure how the justice system should be served in this case. Perhaps 35 years of otherwise spotless service is sufficient to balance the scales, but who gets to make that call? The unaffected parishioners? The pope? Call me a hang 'em high conservative, but just maybe we ought to consult the local District Attorney first. In the meantime, without any further information than the author's faith in her priest, I can't say that removing him from duty until the question of his guilt is resolved is too much to ask.

After all, redemption and forgiveness were never meant as get-out-of-jail-free cards. The accused priest may be paying back his debt to God, but it seems to me that unless the victim is willing to forgive and forget - which apparently isn't the case - then some rendering unto Caesar needs to take place. Removal from duty is simply part of that. The sad thing is that when you think about it, this change in Church policy is just another way for the hierarchy to protect itself. Had they put less emphasis on their own self-preservation in the first place, this particular priest might still be able to do his job right now.

I admit that with all the publicity surrounding the Church and its troubles these days that some pathetic attention-seekers may come out of the woodwork and make false accusations about abuse. If that's the case here, then indeed this author's parish will be hurt by losing the services of their priest. That's a shame, but honestly I can't see how the Church could or should handle things differently. Leaving him in place while the charges are investigated has a much greater possible hurt if it's the wrong thing to do.

Unfortunately, there's no wiggle room here. Zero-tolerance policies are often as stupid as they are inflexible, but let's face it: The Church had no choice. I sympathize with those who may be adversely affected by this, but let's not forget how it came to be this way.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 12, 2002 to Crime and Punishment