Every priest and religious in active ministry today share one common nightmare – that he will receive a phone call from his bishop/congregational leader informing him that an allegation of sexual abuse has been made against him.
To be falsely accused of any crime is bad enough but nothing, except perhaps murder, compares with being accused of the sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable person. In most cases, you are instantly and very publicly removed from office, and even when there is no official explanation for your removal, local people will soon start to put two and two together. There is the shock, the incredulity, the shame (even though you are innocent), the helplessness, the vulnerability. Your world comes crashing down. You are made to feel guilty even before you have a chance to defend yourself.
Even when your family and friends believe and support you, you feel totally alone. You are stuck in a nightmare and you don’t know when or if you’ll ever get out of it.
You hope for the total support of your bishop/superior, but his first instinct will be to protect the interests of the church. As it has always been. In the old shameful days of the past, protecting the interests of the church meant ignoring the cries of those who were abused. It was an unforgivable act that destroyed countless lives, and for which the church continues to pay a heavy price. Now it means letting clergy hang out to dry, even when the allegation is anonymous and clearly spurious.
Because of the church’s past sins, allegations of abuse must always be treated with the utmost seriousness. The victim(s) must always come first. And the vast majority of allegations of abuse are one hundred percent genuine.
But if the allegation is anonymous, or if it is clearly false, the accused priest needs to feel supported by the church. That does not always happen, as Fr Tim Hazelwood describes in The Tablet newspaper (see his story on the Association of Catholic Priests’ website). What happened to him is every innocent priest’s worse nightmare. It is mine too.