Lessons for the Church from the Kavanaugh Debacle

Eamonn Clark

In the past few years, it has become evident that a vast number of people, including some average pew-sitting Catholics, do not understand the value of jurisprudence – that is, the principled examination and judgment on some matter of justice by a legitimately authorized party. The show-trial of Justice Kavanaugh is a wonderful case-study.

By now, there is a mountain of both negative and positive evidence against the claims of the main accuser. (The other accusers have all but been entirely discredited at this point.) To date, there is not a single significant piece of corroboration or verification, and if there were more holes in her story it wouldn’t even exist. (To me it seems like a jumble of “recovered” memories, but I digress.) But somehow this seems not to be enough for 49 U.S. senators, millions of Americans, and many foreign onlookers. To which I say: why?

“It’s not a trial, it’s a job interview – it has higher standards.” This is the claim. Well, fair enough… But we would never want our father, our son, our brother, our friend to be treated in such a way for any reason. We would want for them the presumption of innocence. In this particular case, there is not even probable suspicion (enough for warrants or subpoenas), to make no mention of a preponderance of the evidence, the step below what is necessary for conviction (“beyond a reasonable doubt”).

It is different with Kavanaugh because, despite his (appropriately) evasive answers regarding the matter, he is obviously not a champion of the pro-choice cause. It is this unwelcome ideology which primarily motivated the grossly unjust and immature tactics that are clear to all who don’t have a devotion to Roe and the DNC platform in general.

What does this have to do with the Church?

There are many, many bishops and clergy who have unwelcome opinions (whether heterodox or not). Some of them are very powerful and enjoy great public respect, and nonetheless they have been accused of allowing or covering up bad things (like… sexual abuse), or they have been accused of such things themselves. (Frankly, it is surprising that nobody tried to tie Kavanaugh to McCarrick, given that the former has been a prominent Catholic in D.C. for many years. Maybe that would have come eventually: “He knew someone who knew what McCarrick had done, therefore he was guilty of helping to conceal abuse! We must investigate!” Etc.) We are watching our own investigative debacle unfold with the Viganò accusations (and beyond) about similar issues… And we are facing a litany of coming grand jury reports in the USA.

Some accused clerics are guilty. Some of them are not. We all know this. What is challenging is some principles of jurisprudence, especially when applying them outside the courtroom. So perhaps this is a good moment for the Church to reflect on what we all just watched happen in the USA. There are many lessons to take from the Kavanaugh debacle.

Lesson #1: Truth is not the only value in investigations

We’ve heard that “if finding the truth is all matters” then the FBI investigation into Kavanaugh would have been open-ended (viz., endless, thus destroying or at least severely limiting his chances of confirmation). The problem is, prescinding from any partisan desires about what the truth is or when and how it should be found, finding the truth is not all that matters. Fairness matters as well, given that the truth must be found through a process. Sometimes, what must be done to find the truth, or to get as close as possible, involves unfairness. This is why, for example, evidence obtained by unlawful search and seizure is inadmissible in court, even if it could demonstrate the defendant’s guilt. Even though everyone knows the defendant is guilty, it’s impossible to convict him, because if that’s done, then the entire set of principles of search and seizure laws falls apart. But sometimes an unfair process is used against a person who is innocent.

All well and good for criminal convictions, but one can’t unsee incriminating evidence. However, a weaker version of the principle of the presumption of innocence should pervade the formation of our opinions of those accused of terrible crimes. We should, in fact, usually suspend judgment until sufficient evidence comes forward and/or the accused has a chance to speak. In the meantime, we don’t get to ruin someone’s life, either by publicizing our ill-formed premature judgments in favor of the accuser or by digging into every crevice of the accused’s personal life, especially if we are putting it on public display.

This includes priests and bishops and other church officials… Investigations need to follow a reasonable path of questioning which, at some point, needs to be terminated. The goal should not be to find corroboration/substantiation – because if there is no such evidence, the investigation will never finish…

Lesson #2: Reputation is extremely valuable

St. Thomas puts the value of a good name under the value of life and over the value of physical possessions. (By the way, his Question on Unjust Accusations is also relevant – and it is really dynamite.) Once taken away, a good name normally can’t be regained except with extreme difficulty.

I’ve linked to this article from Homiletic and Pastoral Review before, but here is a quick summary:

Publishing the names of clerics who have been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse is pointless, arbitrary, harmful to morale among the clergy, and, depending the standard used, egregiously sinful.

To take a diocese named in the HPR article, a current statement from the Archdiocese of Baltimore exemplifies the lamentable sort of tendency to put “accountability” above basic norms of jurisprudence. A document produced in response to a recent “listening session” in the Archdiocese lists several gravely problematic items, such as:

“Since 2002, the Archdiocese has disclosed the names of credibly accused priests at the time the allegations became known. Their names have been updated to the original list, which is posted on the archdiocese’s website.”

The central problem here is this: who decides what “credible” means, why is it that person or persons, and how do they determine that credibility? It is a mystery. I won’t go through the entire argument which the HPR article presents (it is really worth reading for yourself), but suffice it to say that this is a fatal flaw. It is especially absurd to say that the allegations are published as soon as they become known – taken at face value, this means that a judgment is made instantly about the credibility of an accusation, supposedly meaning that it meets the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, without even hearing the accused give any kind of defense or seriously weighing the available evidence before possibly helping to ruin a person’s good name unnecessarily. Perhaps Baltimore has a very thick and subtle manual of how to determine “credibility” which is meticulously followed and they are here overstating or poorly stating their approach, but no such manual is referenced. (This same document does mention a “lay independent review board,” but it is unclear about its role in determining “credibility.”) It leaves the impression that their process is astonishingly imprudent and grossly unjust. Beyond that, it is not even clear what good publishing these names actually accomplishes, which is in part why basically no company, anywhere, ever, has had such a policy for their employees.

“The Archdiocese hosts a public meeting when a priest or other minister of the Church in active ministry is credibly accused of abuse.”

Why? So that anyone with an interest in harming that person or the Church in general has a chance to capitalize on an allegation? (This is exactly what we saw happen with Kavanaugh… Publicity can encourage a dog pile if it’s the right person being accused. Wicked people see that this is their chance to get some money, hurt a cause, forward an agenda, draw attention to themselves, etc.) It seems outlandish to do anything other than launch a discrete formal inquiry among trustworthy people who might have relevant information and who can keep their mouths shut about the investigation.

“There is zero tolerance for anyone found to be credibly accused of abuse. Anyone who is credibly accused of child sexual abuse is permanently removed from ministry.”

Leaving aside the weirdness of switching from the extremely vague word “abuse” to the still vague phrase “child sexual abuse,” we return to the central question: who decides what “credible” means? And what if it comes out that the accuser was wrong? Surely, it would not mean a “permanent” removal then, right? If there is a process of appeal and reinstatement, why use such threatening language? It reads like a juvenile smokescreen at best, and a draconian strong-arm at worst.

Much like secular liberals’ use of the words “tolerance” and “equality,” so do some dioceses use words like “accountability” and “transparency” – if you are on the “wrong side” of someone’s desires or opinions, you will be made to pay dearly. There is then “zero tolerance” for you. But no mention will be made of “zero tolerance” for false accusers, or unfair investigative practices, or unnecessary publicity. St. Thomas’ take on false accusations is worth explaining briefly: basically, if an accuser is unable to prove what he says, he should be sentenced just as the defendant would have been if found guilty. Now, perhaps it should be subject to a slightly lower standard than a conviction (such as preponderance-of-the-evidence), but this is a serious suggestion from a serious thinker which seems entirely forgotten. It would deter frivolous accusations and opportunists.

At any rate, the approach of dioceses like Baltimore is more akin to Lady MacBeth washing her hands than to balanced self-policing. And I have seen this intemperate attitude cause serious harm. The righteous intention to protect the vulnerable is achieved by adopting a strategy which is something between ritual purity and a witch-hunt. And given that scandal-plagued Maryland is now facing a Grand Jury investigation, this is all the more relevant for poor Baltimore.

Note too, by the way, that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report in fact did not attempt to give us a list of priests found guilty of sexual abuse, except indirectly. (Nor will any other similar report in the future.) It gave us a list of “church personnel” who were accused of “sexual abuse” (a vague term) in a way the investigators thought credible enough to include in their investigative report. That is quite a different thing. Consider, for example, the report’s inclusion of an allegation against Fr. Ganter, who was born in the 1800’s… The incident supposedly happened some 80 years ago. And yet his name is among those “credibly accused,” even though he’d been falsely accused in the 40’s by three kids who later admitted they had lied. Perhaps the Grand Jury conflated “realistic” with “credible” – an easy but disastrous mistake.

Lesson #3: The opinions of survivors are not sacrosanct

As I pointed out in another post, experience is not the same as wisdom, and this error is pervasive in the Left. (Experience is especially not partial-omniscience – as if being a survivor of sexual assault means you know what happened 36 years ago in an unknown house in suburban D.C.) Having been through some experience simply does not make a person an expert on the objective causes and effects of that kind of event. A child who grows up in a war may indeed be able to describe what it feels like to be afraid of bombs every night, but he might not be a wise counselor to a General fighting a war. In fact, his own experience might blind him to the broader picture. For example, he may be so empathetic to kids like him that his advice to forego an attack with a moderate risk of collateral damage would occasion the enemy’s victory, resulting in far more damage than what was avoided.

As we saw with the unending barrage of feminist activists in the news, this is not so popular a doctrine. Especially remarkable was the encounter with Sen. Flake and some women who accosted him in an elevator, which occasioned the supplementary FBI investigation. I suppose the argument is, “I was abused by someone once, therefore Kavanaugh is guilty of abusing this other person.”

It is surely important to give a forum for survivors to speak their mind, to tell their stories, and generally to feel heard and consoled. However, one need not have survived a sexual assault to know how to investigate an accusation of sexual assault. And sometimes people further removed from an experience of abuse have a clearer mind on the issue, as there is no projection of one’s own experience onto other cases which might be quite different in nature.

Lesson #4: We are not so holy

As I recall the story, one day, an elderly St. Francis of Assisi was praised by a man for being a living saint. His reply: “I could still father many children,” implying not that he still just might get married one day and have a big happy family, but rather that he still just might become a monster. The moral is twofold – don’t definitively praise a man’s virtue until he’s dead, and don’t presume that you are beyond stooping to any level of sin. A corollary would be to see another’s failings in light of one’s own experience of sin… (There was one senator in particular who was troubling in this regard, as he has admitted to groping a girl in high school while she was intoxicated.)

To expect absolute moral perfection from anyone other than God or the saints in Heaven is stupid. It is especially stupid, hypocritical, and sinful to find as many flaws as possible in a person’s distant past to smear his or her character. This is becoming more and more relevant – consider that there might be some young man right now saying dumb things on Facebook who will one day be elected Bishop of Rome.

Frankly, watching the Senate proceedings reminded me of Christ arguing with the Pharisees and scribes – trick questions, a clear ideological agenda, a double-standard, feigned or unjustified outrage, hypocrisy, the bastardization of the fundamental text at issue… But we could all become like that. And all of us would without God’s special grace.

Lesson #5: Tribalism is bad in rational discourse

If one were to remove the letters after the names of the senators involved in the investigations and hearings, and a nameless president had nominated an opinion-less judge, what sense could possibly be made of this whole affair? None, I suggest. Epistemic vice became moral error. An observer to such a politically neutral hypothetical fiasco following the outline of the Kavanaugh debacle would be astounded by some senators’ fanatical commitment displayed to investigating seriously dubious allegations, obsession over drinking habits and notes in a high school yearbook, deep concern about judicial temperament over mild expressions of frustration at being accused of running a gang rape/drug ring and raging alcoholism in front of millions of people without any corroborative evidence, etc.

Targeted anger, imbalanced presumptions, motivated reasoning, double-standards… It’s all very bad, and it’s all very easy to fall into, due in no small part to the fact that fights can be fun and give us a sense of meaning and belonging. We have to avoid it – for the Church, the party lines might be “conservatives” and “liberals,” or “laity” and “clergy,” or “bishops” and “everyone else,” or “my diocese” and “the Vatican.” Well, as it turns out, people are complicated, and so too is human conflict. Tribalism deadens the senses to this reality.

Advocacy groups are a good thing. Lawyers are a good thing. (Incredible, but true.) But mobs are bad. And when advocacy groups or lawyers are indistinguishable from the mob, that’s when you have trouble. There are certainly predatory clerics around, and they have been concealed by other clerics. For sure. But this calls for the use of scalpels rather than hammers – let alone torches and pitchforks.

Lesson #6: Abortion is worth everything to the Left

They are willing to weaponize practically baseless accusations to run a man’s good name into the ground and then some. (This might also include the accuser, who apparently wanted to remain anonymous to the public.) And anyone who does not realize that the whole thing was about Roe v. Wade needs a serious wake-up call. SCOTUS is now a majority pro-life bench… The Leftists are terrified, they are wounded, and therefore they are extremely dangerous. Whom will they come for next to safeguard the great sacrament of the Canaanites? Me? You? Your parish priest? Your bishop? The pope? Be on your guard.

Lesson #7: Sometimes it’s just not worth it

“Reception is according to the mode of the receiver,” goes the old adage. The screaming banshees near the senate gallery, the protesters pathetically clawing at the 13-ton doors of the Supreme Court, or even the folks chanting trite little poems out on the street, are not going to be convinced by reason anytime soon. (Although, to be fair, some of them turned out to be paid to protest, so maybe they could be reached.) They feel like such-and-such is true, and that’s enough for them. Or it’s politically convenient for such-and-such to be true, and that’s enough for them. It doesn’t matter what the actual evidence is…

These people are incapable of being reasoned with, at least for the moment. As St. Thomas would say, it is like arguing with a vegetable. So, what to do? Let the banshees scream, and just do what needs to be done. Maybe eventually they can be reached, but not right now.

Plenty of people are so unbelievably angry with the Church that it is just not the right time to reach them. Some people are angry with moderate jurisprudence for accused clerics. So be it – let them be angry, and meanwhile let’s focus on doing what is truly just. Justice, by the way, is one of three goods which allows for grave scandal, in St. Thomas’ mind, the others being life and teaching right doctrine.

Lesson #8: Beware of false friends

There are many snakes in the grass who are willing to hurt good people by lying about them or otherwise damaging their reputation… Some of them are or have been “friends.”

People who are counting on secular Grand Jury reports to “fix the Church” might be falling into such a trap. Remember that Judas was not only a traitor to his Friend, but he also trusted the government too much. The two sins went together.

It is His Church, not the country’s.

Enough said.

Lesson #9: Men are seriously vulnerable in the #metoo era

This is especially true for priests. I once heard of a bishop who had a policy when he was around kids (which I suppose for him would only be at major public events), which was this: at all times, have one hand on the crosier, and one hand on the pectoral cross… Thus he protected himself from accusations. And many good clergy live in this kind of fear, a fear which is becoming less and less neurotic as the moral panic increases among the laity. They need our support, and anything we can do to help protect them is good – help them retain plausible deniability (like appropriately reminding them of diocesan CYP policies, not putting them in situations where they could easily be accused “credibly” by a mischievous kid, etc.), encourage them to stay beyond all reproach, tell them you trust them. It all helps.

It might also be worth it for clergy to take a cue from Justice Kavanaugh, who has kept a rather meticulous personal calendar for decades (remarkable!) which he produced in favor of his innocence… Names, places, times, activities. Tell your secretary to keep all of it on file, and to correct it if there are any missed appointments, unexpected events, etc. by making a special note. I know I’m considering doing this.

Lesson  #10: God alone is the Just Judge

Any human justice system is going to be imperfect. There will always be procedural rules about due process which occasion the protection of real criminals. There will always be innocent people wrongly accused who are found guilty in a fair trial.

History, strictly speaking, can never be demonstrated. We will never be totally sure about what happened in some house in suburban D.C. 36 years ago. We will never be totally sure about the veracity of any accusation of a crime, as in the end it could always have been a carefully crafted hoax to get someone framed, or an unrealistic truth. And yet we need to do our best anyway.

God, however, does not investigate – He knows, and His judgment is always just.