“Ms. Flowers: Thank you for your recent opinion piece. A breath of fresh air in this crazy politicized world. When my son was in ninth grade he was falsely accused of raping a girl. Long story short: The police did an investigation and quickly exonerated my son. But my son was ridiculed, bullied, and exiled at his school. The administration did nothing to help him. Fast forward three years. My son took his own life in June 2017. In his suicide note he said that he was still thought of as a rapist. My world ended the day he died. As a mother of also two teen girls I understand fully about sexual assault. But false accusers need to be held accountable by the law. Again, thank you for writing this recent piece. I’m hopeful things will begin to change.”
This is not the typical response I get when I write about sexual assault. Many readers display a problematic knee-jerk willingness to believe accusations with or without proof, and to view due process for the accused as a troublesome technicality that stands in the way of justice for the afflicted.
Nowhere is that more evident than when we discuss the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, which I did earlier this year when Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released the grand jury report this summer alleging decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups by Catholic officials across Pennsylvania.
When I wrote to remind readers that the vast majority of priests are not pedophiles and misfits, many people were upset. They wrote to me angrily because I refuse to accept that the church is rotten to the core. When I defend due process and argue for calm consideration of the facts, I am called a rape apologist.
But due process is important.
That’s why I was relieved this week to see that Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court held that the names of 11 current and former priests who had been mentioned in the grand jury report could not be released because their constitutional “right to reputation” would be irreparably damaged by that breach of confidentiality. The plaintiffs had sued to keep their names under seal, arguing that they were not given an opportunity to rebut the accusations made against them by grand jury witnesses, particularly since the statutes of limitations had expired and criminal prosecutions with all the attendant constitutional protections were now foreclosed.
“We acknowledge that this outcome may be unsatisfying to the public and to the victims of the abuse detailed in the report. While we understand and empathize with these perspectives, constitutional rights are of the highest order, and even alleged sexual abusers, or those abetting them, are guaranteed by our commonwealth’s constitution the right of due process.”
Predictably, Shapiro was unhappy, and issued a statement where he excoriated the court’s decision and said it “allows predator priests to remain in the shadows and permits the church to continue concealing their identities.” He then took a further step and demanded that dioceses across the state defy the Supreme Court and release the names themselves.
It is troubling that the attorney general feels that there are certain groups of Pennsylvanians who are entitled to less “process” than others. It is troubling that he persists in calling Pennsylvanians who have had no opportunity to defend themselves “predators.” It is troubling that we still have a grand jury system that deprives Pennsylvanians of important constitutional protections.
When people are deprived of those protections, like the presumption of innocence and the right to confront your accuser, lives can be destroyed.