I'd like to point readers today to David Clohessy's posting at the SNAP blog site about the small but loud bunch of Catholics rallying around Father Joseph Jiang in St. Louis, after a teenaged girl alleged that Jiang sexually abused her when she was fifteen years old. As David notes, the girls' parents believe her, as do the police, prosecutors, and St. Louis's most experienced attorney dealing with clergy abuse cases, Ken Chackes.
As David also notes, in a court filing, law enforcement officials state that they have a phone message, several text messages, and a $20,000 check that Jiang is said to have left for the girl's parents after they confronted him with their suspicions. Jiang has also been suspended by St. Louis archbishop Robert Carlson, and in the civil suit they've filed against Jiang (according to David, a criminal case has been dropped for complicated legal reasons), the parents of the girl state that Jiang admitted his guilt to them as well as to Carlson.
A boy has now come forth making allegations similar to those of the girl, and his parents believe him, as do the police and prosecutors. Even so, as Lilly Fowler and Jesse Bogan note recently for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a small but very vocal group of St. Louis Catholics is claiming that Father Jiang is being persecuted, and that the allegations against him are insubstantial.
As SNAP officials and others connected to groups supporting abuse survivors have repeatedly noted, the formation of vocal pressure groups to defend religious officials accused of sexual abuse of minors almost always complicates the process of investigating the claims of those who have alleged abuse. It creates an atmosphere in which those claims cannot easily be investigated and adjudicated, and it frequently lends comfort and assistance to religious authority figures who turn out to have done precisely what it's alleged they have done.
This is by no means to say that everyone accused of serious crimes does not deserve a fair hearing, or that allegations about criminal activity ought to be believed without serious investigation. What groups working to support abuse survivors want to point out is that the formation of pressure groups designed to defend priests accused of sexually abusing minors with claims that no priest could possibly engage in such behavior make it difficult for anyone who may have experienced abuse by a given priest to come forward with reports of the abuse. These activities also impose pressure on law enforcement and judicial officials that is entirely unhelpful as they go about their work.
For these reasons, survivor advocacy groups maintain that it's preferable to allow criminal and judicial authorities to do their work free of public pressure campaigns designed to defend a priest against whom allegations of abuse have been maintained. This is particularly recommended, survivor groups urge, when one considers the obstacles anyone coming forward with allegations about abuse by a trusted and highly regarded religious authority figure faces.
The question that I think bears asking here: why is it that this vocal defense of one priest after another accused of sexual abuse of minors remains a predictable feature of American Catholicism right up to the present, even as we learn over and over again that those seeking to give aid and comfort to priests who are alleged to have abused minors turn out to be embarrassed down the road, when the facts support the claims of abuse survivors? What is it in some subcultures of American Catholicism that produces this kind of defensive reflex response, and the claim that priests against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors are made are Jesus walking the road to Calvary?
What caused a small, vocal group of Catholics in Kansas City to rally around Bishop Robert Finn when he was accused of having protected Father Shawn Ratigan after it was known that Ratigan had taken pornographic pictures of little girls? When Finn was eventually found guilty of the crime of endangering children . . . ?
And why did one of the loudest defenders of any and all priests accused of sexual molestation of minors, Bill Donohue, do everything but stand on his head to defend Father Ratigan and Bishop Finn? When both were eventually found guilty of criminal activity . . . ?
As I say, we American Catholics really do need to determine what it is in some subcultures of American Catholicism that makes them behave this way even now, when we know that most abuse survivors have not made up their allegations of abuse by clergy? We need to determine what this is and figure out how to deal with it, that is, if we ever expect to resolve the abuse crisis in our church, and to place ourselves on the road to becoming the kind of church we're called by Christ to be.