An alleged predator priest has been vindicated now that his accuser realized that he got two clerics confused. In his defense, the victim now realizes that he was, in fact, abused by a different cleric than he first understood. The ‘correct’ predator is Fr. John Crews, who has been deemed ‘credibly accused’ by his own diocese and faces other similar lawsuits. Fr. Crews succeeded the wrongly accused priest at a school, and the crimes happened years ago, so the mix-up isn’t shocking. Suing the wrong person is rare, but it can happen. When it does, it’s obviously very tough for the alleged wrongdoer. We at Horowitz Law, however, contend that the damage is far greater to an abused child who is wrongly disbelieved than an accused adult who is wrongly identified. So, what can we learn from this case of ‘mistaken identity’, and how can we collectively reduce the chances of this harm in the future?
First, we at Horowitz Law want to stress that the reverse happens far more often: a victim reports abuse, they are disbelieved, and the accused stays on the job, only to be removed later when a second, third or fourth accuser comes forward and Catholic officials realize they’ve made the wrong and reckless choice. Sometimes even the criminal justice system finds an alleged molester not guilty, but later, his church supervisors find one or more abuse reports against him credible. One example is Fr. Antonin R. Caron of Portland, Maine. In 1994, a jury found him ‘not guilty’ of gross sexual assault and other charges involving a 13-year-old. Years later, his bishop deemed another abuse report against him “substantiated,” Eventually, the Vatican defrocked Caron in 2016. There are many, many cases like this, and it happens more than it should.
Second, we take issue with the claim made by a church official that a wrong accusation automatically means “a man’s whole career is destroyed.” In the recent case mentioned above, the alleged abuser’s bishop kept him on the job. He’s still on the job today. No doubt, the accused suffered and may still suffer. He likely felt shocked initially, may have trouble sleeping now, and might be on antidepressants and in counseling. But we suspect that even this wrongly alleged wrongdoer wouldn’t claim his career has been ‘destroyed.’
Third, the church hierarchy can take several simple, inexpensive, common-sense steps to help minimize wrong allegations and the harm they cause.
- Posting accused predators’ pictures on church websites as the Philadelphia Archdiocese has done.
- Posting on church websites the complete work histories of alleged child molesters. If a victim is not 100% sure who abused them, it’s helpful when each of the alleged predator’s assignments is readily available.
- Using church resources (websites, parish bulletins, pulpit announcements) to beg victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers to come forward. The more a bishop prods his parishioners and the public to speak up, the more likely it is that the truth will surface.
- Joining with survivors in pushing for statute of limitations reform. If victims are given more opportunity to seek justice – without facing tight, arbitrary deadlines – more care can be taken to ensure all the facts in a lawsuit are well-documented.
And it should go without saying, but tragically, there are bound to be a few misidentified priests when so many cases emerge. Reducing the sheer number of abusers and cover-ups will minimize the chances of error.
Finally, it’s worth reading this long explanation of ‘false allegations’ written by the independent experts at BishopAccountability.org. Fewer than 2% of sexual abuse allegations against the Catholic church appear to be false. Patrick Schiltz, dean of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minnesota, stated that for over more than a decade, he defended Catholic dioceses against sexual-abuse lawsuits in more than 500 cases and that he had concluded that ‘fewer than 10’ of those cases were based on false accusations.” See Doubt Is Cast on Accuser of 2 Priests, Judge Says, by Sam Dillon, New York Times, August 31, 2002. Schiltz was named a federal district court judge in 2006.
The Schiltz estimate is corroborated by a 2004 report commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and written by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The report analyzed surveys completed by the US dioceses and many religious orders. The collated results of one of the surveys show that 5,681 diocesan investigations of abuse allegations in 1950-2002 yielded definitive results:
- 4,570 allegations were substantiated (80%)
- 1,028 allegations were unsubstantiated (18%)
- 83 allegations were deemed false (1.5%)
These definitively investigated allegations represent slightly more than half of the 10,667 allegations reported in the John Jay study. The other allegations were investigated without definitive results or were not investigated at all. Moreover, the church-funded research project did not collect data on 298 priests who were considered by their bishops to be exonerated when the dioceses completed the surveys in 2003.
Kathleen McChesney, who was the first executive director of the Office for Child and Youth Protection of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, summarized the John Jay findings on false allegations: “False reporting of sexual abuse by children is very rare.”
In 1985, Rev. Michael R. Peterson, then president of St. Luke Institute, a church treatment center for priests accused of sexual abuse, sent a package to the bishop of every diocese in the United States. The package contained a letter, an essay on the abuse problem, a copy of the Manual that Peterson wrote with Rev. Thomas P. Doyle O.P. and F. Ray Mouton, and a collection of scientific articles on sexual abuse. In his essay, Peterson states: “In general, the adage that ‘where there is smoke, there is fire’ is almost always true. I am not saying that it is impossible for a false accusation to be made; I am saying that, in general, the ‘tip of the iceberg’ is being exposed with a single accusation and that the cleric will generally need some kind of professional and legal help in a very short period of time.” The bottom line is that mistaken identifications can occur, even if they are quite rare. The church hierarchy is at least partially to blame for this and can take easy steps to minimize the chances of these errors.
Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, please contact our law firm at 888-283-9922 or send an email to sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at [email protected]. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.