So - one thing we know for sure: Fr John McManus is innocent. He’s the priest against whom “child protection allegations”, we learn today, have been leveled. He’s the chancellor of the Diocese of Down and Connor (that means he runs the diocese’s administration), he’s a member of the diocese’s committee on child safety and he’s a priest in Ballygalget, Co Down. He’s stood down from his work as chancellor and as a priest while the police investigate the claims made against him.
How do I know he’s innocent? That’s easy. It’s the law. Everyone has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. I don’t know Fr McManus, have never even met the man. I do know, though, that he hasn’t been proven guilty, therefore he is innocent.
But but but. There’s a harsh truth at the heart of the horror of child abuse by Catholic clergy that’s never been dealt with by the media here. You’ll get front page headlines (that’s where the McManus accusations are this morning) about the nature and circumstances of abuse. You’ll get feature stories, interviews with victims, investigative reporting of clerical cover-up. What you don’t get and won’t get is the impact on clergy of accusations which turn out to be totally groundless.
You didn’t know there were such cases? I haven’t made a study of them but I can think of at least two priests from one northern diocese who were accused of abusing children; they fought their cases in the courts and were proved innocent. Happy ending, eh? Well not quite. One now works in a remote parish and feels let down by those who should have supported him in his innocence; the other is broken physically and mentally, and requires constant care.
The problem is one shared by teachers and others working with the young. Once an accusation is hurled, that’s it: the teacher’s reputation is finished. S/he may fight in the courts and establish innocence but the child-abuse link will stay lodged in people’s minds. Likewise the priest: once the mud has been slung, proving innocence in the courts will never wash away the stain.
It’s a cruel and unjust situation, so here’s a suggestion. In future, when an accusation is leveled at a priest or teacher, the name of the priest or teacher should remain concealed but the name of the person making the accusation should be made public. After all, a victim bears no responsibility for the vile deeds perpetrated against them, assuming the allegations to be true. But because the public mind, against all the interests of justice, effectively sees accusation as equivalent to conviction, the identity of any priest or teacher charged should not be made public until and if they are convicted.
It’s too late now for Fr John McManus, as well as those other priests who were innocent of any crime and whose reputations and lives were destroyed by malicious liars. The fact that no journalist has had the guts to make a programme or write a feature about the effects of abuse allegations on innocent Catholic clergy shows us how close to a witch-hunt the clerical abuse issue has become.