I am, I admit, unsure what to think when I read and hear the numerous stories of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. What I mean, to say it more precisely and perhaps controversially, is I do not know whether I believe that such widespread abuse as is reported took place. The Irish bishops do not dispute the contents of the Murphy Report and others; and obviously it is possible to collect very many truly distressing and heart-rending stories, such as that of Paul Dwyer, which featured in a Newsnight report last evening. But a recent article claimed that two hundred reports of abuse had been received “in a few days” by a victims’ support agency in the Netherlands.
The Church authorities now believe, perhaps rightly, that the best way of dealing with the scandal is to face it head on. “The correct starting point is a recognition of what happened and concern for the victims” said Fr. Lombardi, the Vatican Press Officer, recently. But, it seems to me quiet contrary to reason to say that “recognition of what happened” in this sense (i.e. that many hundreds of actual victims exist and that a very large number of priests against whom nothing has been proven are guilty) is the correct starting point. The proper place to begin is with by investigation into the facts of the cases, and with the assumption that, if an individual denies committing a crime, he is innocent. The ancient principle ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat must surely be upheld.
A “recognition of what happened” should really mean, then, a recognition that abuse took place (it has been proven or admitted), that bishops ought to have acted with greater vigour in prosecuting accusations, applying the existing prescriptions of Canon Law and, where necessary, handing over cases to the secular authorities, and lead to the principles of natural justice which protect both victims and those unjustly accused, being upheld absolutely.