I have just been catching up with the story of Fr. Mark Paterson, who was wrongly accused, and subsequently convicted, of sexual assault back in 2004, and has just had his conviction overturned. The story is carried at Laodicea, with comment at Seraphic Singles, including interesting discussion in the combox there.
Here we have a very difficult problem. On the one hand, we have the undeniable fact that many rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, and that of those that are reported, only a very small number result in a successful prosecution. Clearly anything that works against improving those statistics is seriously problematic.
On the other hand, we have the undeniable fact that occasionally, false allegations of rape and sexual assault are made, and that such allegations can have a catastrophic impact on those wrongly accused, especially, though not solely, on those wrongly convicted.
To make the mix more potent still, there are possibly predispositions involved in all this that make it a tougher problem.
On the one hand, some victims' stories are not taken as seriously as they should be (for a host of societal reasons), and the fact that there are occasional false accusations may further incline people to take allegations less seriously than they should be taken; publicising such cases is therefore fraught with problems.
On the other hand, certain groups of people, once accused, may be thought to be more likely to be guilty than other groups: Catholic priests being a prime example, due to the extensive coverage of, and appropriate scandal surrounding, the small number of priests who do offend.
Surrounding all this is the whole issue of rhetoric, with phrases like 'victim-blaming' being hurled around; and the allied issue of press reporting, which prefers the sensational and salacious to the calm or nuanced, for obvious reasons.
I am delighted that Fr Paterson's name has been cleared, but I worry about a priest nearer to home who has recently been imprisoned for an alleged sexual assault several decades ago.
He pleaded his innocence to the last; his sole accuser told a different story. After all this time, it is of course harder to prove one way or the other. Who was to be believed? Perhaps it is because I have recently been reading To Kill A Mockingbird to Dominique that I wonder if a jury, in the current climate, was ever likely to have reached a different verdict.
My inclination is to trust the jury system: after all, I wasn't there and didn't hear the evidence. But as far as I can gather it was one man's word against another. And as the case of Fr Paterson reminds us, our court system is not infallible.
So we are left with the predicament in general terms: how do we think and talk about these issues in ways that neither undermine the possibility of victims being taken with all due seriousness, nor undermine the possibility of defendants having a fair trial and being truly considered innocent until proven guilty?
Likewise, we have the the predicament in particular cases: how do we have confidence in our justice system, when it is subject to such strains and stresses?
To these questions I do not know the answer.
Once more, the only counsel I can offer, beyond the practice of prudence in our discussions of such issues, is prayer and sacrifice: for those abused and for those wrongly accused.
Sancta Maria, mater purissima, ora pro nobis.
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