If only this wasn’t real life—if we were talking about a fictional novel plot instead—this situation could very well be laughable. But we aren’t, and the consequences couldn’t be further from humorous—they’re frightful and terribly high stakes. Somewhere in the dusty halls of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, church officials say that in recent years, they’ve gotten abuse reports against somewhere between four and eight priests. This is not some abstract concept or a faceless, nameless collection of methods; these are individuals, human beings accused of inflicting profound harm on the most vulnerable among us. Yet, according to these officials, not a single report is deemed credible.
To put this into perspective, we’re saying that the Catholic hierarchy within this archdiocese is claiming every single one of these reports is either false or ‘not substantiated.’ Consequently, the accused clerics—accused of something as dreadful as child molestation—are under no restrictions whatsoever. Free as a bird, they are as if they just stole candy from a kid, and no one really batted an eye.
Who are we talking about?
This defies the laws of statistical probability. You know what’s more disconcerting? At least two of these accused priests—namely, Fr. David Ghiorso and Fr. Linh Tien Nguyen—are still rocking it on their job in parishes, still performing their priestly duties as if it’s business as usual. This is the equivalent of a chef continuing to serve meals while the kitchen is on fire. Furthermore, none are even featured on the official archdiocesan ‘credibly accused’ list. Shocked? Don’t be. There isn’t one.
Quite simply, there IS no official archdiocesan ‘credibly accused’ list. Not under the reign of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. He stands unique in refusing to post such a list among California’s 12 bishops. And looking at the larger picture, among the nearly 200 bishops in the US, Cordileone is one of the exclusive dozen refusing to post such a list.
The One-Man Stand
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, of all of California’s 12 bishops, only Cordileone is the only one to refuse to post such a list. And looking at the larger picture, among the nearly 200 bishops in the US, Cordileone is one of the exclusive dozen refusing to post such a list. The exact reason remains shrouded in the foggy statements issued.
As reported by KQED, the NPR affiliate in the Bay Area, Cordileone reportedly said, “No one has given him a reason for doing so.” But let’s pause for a bit and unpack that. He also added, “The great majority of these sins were committed many decades ago. . .” While some might find his justification convincing on the surface, the reality digs under the skin.
Let’s rewind a bit. A John Jay College of Criminal Justice report in 2004 examined allegations of abuse by Catholic priests or deacons from 1950 to 2002. The study found “a definitive result of the investigation” in just over 5,600 cases. Out of that, a disturbing 80% of the allegations were substantiated, 18% were unsubstantiated, and a meager 1.5%, translating to 83 of the accusations, were determined to be false. More than 30 Catholic religious orders have released lists of their ‘credibly accused’ abusers. Add that figure to the nearly 200 bishops we mentioned earlier who have done likewise.
Nearly every clergy member within these figures has made the effort to explain, sometimes in detail, their reasons for disclosure. These explanations live on their websites and are circulated in news accounts. Around 20 years have passed since US Catholic officials first released lists like these, allowing for plenty of time, experience, and discussion of disclosing and posting the names of credibly accused child molesting clerics. Yet, strangely enough, none of these gave Archbishop Cordileone reason compelling enough to disclose the names of those of proven, admitted, or credibly accused child molesting clerics. Never mind the countless victims, advocates, and Catholic laypeople who have no doubt explained to the archbishop why disclosing alleged predators’ names is more prudent and responsible than hiding alleged predators’ names. These numbers aren’t just statistics; they’re glaring road signs pointing to a grave problem. They contradict Cordileone and his colleagues’ outrageous zero out of four abuse report statistics. Zero out of eight abuse reports is even MORE unprecedented.
Deeming zero out of four or eight abuse reports ‘credible’— that’s almost unprecedented. It pulls us in to ask, what’s going on here? Maybe we’re dealing with a wavering degree of fear among Catholic officials related to the severity of recent abuse reports that involve still-living and/or working priests. But why the fear, you ask? The reasons could very well hide behind the fact that more recent abuse cases if they do end up going to trial, are potentially more damaging to the church than older cases. Moreover, these recent cases pulverize the church hierarchy’s fabricated illusion that ‘Predator priests are a thing of the past. We’re better now.” Plus, they can lead to further disillusionment among the congregation, decreasing donations, shrinking attendance, and soaring disaffiliation from the denomination.
One might think it’s impossible to determine the motives of hundreds of US Catholic officials in thousands of abuse and cover-up cases. But from the legal standpoint of us at Horowitz Law, we’re confident that these could very well be the reasons here. Moreover, Patrick Schiltz, now a judge in Minnesota, was for more than 20 years the church hierarchy’s foremost defense lawyer, having represented more than 500 accused priests. In the New York Times, Schiltz admitted that “fewer than 10” of those 500 priests were falsely accused.
Imperfections, Creativity…and the Truth
We at Horowitz Law are not sophisticated mathematicians, but these numbers suggest to us that the odds are astronomically slim that four, six, or eight reports of clergy child sex crimes IN JUST ONE ARCHDIOCESE in SUCH A SHORT PERIOD could be ‘false’ or ‘unsubstantiated.’ But let’s play a game. Let’s pretend for a minute that we believe, and that Archbishop Cordileone actually believes, these reports are all truly ‘unsubstantiated.’
Well, should it not be a priority to investigate, establish, and share the truth? Has the Archbishop (and does anyone) ever been led to believe that an unresolved critical situation can be ignored without any consequences? It’s the church’s religious, moral, and civic responsibility to establish the credibility of these reports—for the greater good of its congregation and its doctrinal integrity. Is it too hard to ask for a public announcement of the allegations and seek help from the public to resolve these accusations?
Let’s further pretend that you’re about to go on a cross-country car trip, but your car hasn’t been inspected for a while, and it’s making odd noises. So you aren’t sure if it is safe to take this long drive with the kids in tow. Would you say, ‘I can’t really substantiate if I’m about to take a potentially life-threatening risk to me and my loved ones, but I’ll just risk it and start driving.’
Now, a different ‘pretend’ scenario: You’re not sure if that smell in your kitchen is a gas leak. Do you shrug your shoulders and say, ‘I guess I can’t substantiate whether there’s a risk of an explosion in my house. I’ll just stay here, go about my daily business, and keep my fingers crossed?’
These examples present, in essence, a truth that we hold essential — an attitude of care, consideration, and responsibility towards ourselves and others around us. And we’re all lucky enough to have the internet and skilled professionals to resolve critical questions for us. In the case of the archdiocese abuse reports, Archbishop Cordileone also has these resources. ‘Unsubstantiated’ doesn’t and shouldn’t end this story.
Reinventing The Wheel?
Out with the old, in with the new—they say. But in this case, maybe we can blend old and new, give it a bit of a tweak, and see if a solution dances out of the mix. In less potentially high-stakes situations, we at least use the internet to figure out the best course of action or ask friends and family for their experience and advice. Archbishop Cordileone could use church websites, parish bulletins, and even pulpit announcements to help determine whether an abuse report is credible or not. Church members could be appealed for assistance in resolving these serious issues. How hard could it be to put claims of abuse up for public scrutiny and ask for help in substantiating them?
Imagine you’re going to the Sunday mass, and there’s this bulletin – “We received a child sexual abuse accusation against Fr. Mike Smith. We genuinely seek your help to resolve this matter. If you have any experience, information, or anything that might help prove or disprove this report, please come forward.” It’s immoral and risky for us to leave this serious matter unresolved. So we beg you to promptly ask everyone you know who may have had any dealings with Fr. Smith about this allegation.” Now, wouldn’t that make Catholics feel reassured of the efforts of their Church to keep their community safe?
We can easily imagine Catholic moms and dads responding with sentiments like “Wow. Our bishop is really working hard to keep kids safe and determine the truth about abuse accusations. Thank heavens he’s better than many bishops who do and say so little when someone alleges they were molested.” Second, after being told such announcements would soon be printed in parish bulletins and on church websites, we can imagine some child molesting clerics reluctantly and fearfully admitting to their crimes. After all, it’s better if you’re ousted after one abuse report rather than after such announcements are made and two, three, or a dozen other victims are prompted to step forward. Third, even if no predator admits his crimes, we can imagine that other victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers might well tell themselves, “Well, I’d hoped Fr. Smith would have been suspended at the first allegation. But the bishop claims the truth is still unclear. He’s begging for help. I guess, despite my reservations, I’ll pick up the phone and tell them about what Fr. Smith did to me.”
Recklessness or Reluctance?
Shrugging off unresolved accusations like these could be termed reckless, to say the least. Or maybe it’s an old-school reluctance to change, to do things differently. But if ever there were a time to junk the rule book and scream from the rooftops, it’s now. The stakes couldn’t be any higher. We wouldn’t ignore a gas leak or an un-inspected, rattling car, would we? So, why should the Church? This boots up the million-dollar question: What harm would it do to publish lists, explain favorably, and hang the disclose banners high? When it comes to child safety, it’s better to overreact than underreact. The alleged victims need validation and justice, not indifference and oblivion. Archbishop Cordileone’s approach to abuse accusations doesn’t just defy logic; it also flies in the face of compassion. Integrity isn’t a friend to the fainthearted. It’s about time the church realizes that its silence echoes more loudly than it thinks.
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, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.