Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What the words "credible accusation" mean

This was going to be a comment left in the increasingly tangled comment box over at Mark Shea's blog, where Mark's excellent advice to everybody to pray and mind their own business over the Father Corapi matter has been used as a jumping-off place for people to ride their own pet hobby-horses for a while now. Sic semper commentae cistae, one might say, if one's Latin is as bad as mine.

But I realized as I began thinking about what I wanted to say that I was probably going to get a bit wordy, and that it would be better to write a separate small post on the subject.

Several people, among them one gentleman whom I won't name but who is a frequent commenter there, seem to believe that Father Corapi's order, SOLT, is acting unjustly both by commencing an investigation process and by placing Father on administrative leave while the process is underway, despite the fact that this is standard procedure not only for clergy but for many lay people in many situations. (The further allegation, that SOLT is acting in violation of canon law, seems completely unfounded at this point given that SOLT's statement on the matter specifically refers to their following of canon law, and must be dismissed out of hand at this point if we are to be charitable to all concerned.)

As I read these various comments, I begin to see a pattern in them. Specifically, it seems that those who believe Father Corapi is being treated unjustly are pointing to the fact that "one letter" has been written and received, and based on the allegations in "one letter," unsubstantiated, as far as anyone knows, by hard evidence, this administrative leave has been imposed and this investigation begun.

Now, it is possible that some sort of hard evidence was presented, although it is not mentioned in any way--but I think it is quite likely that the letter with its multiple allegations remains the only item of evidence thus far. Nevertheless, the letter itself might have been sufficient to trigger the investigation without any uncharity or injustice toward Father Corapi being involved, even if he is, as one must devoutly hope of any accused person, completely innocent of all charges.

How could that be? Isn't that terribly unjust to our priests, that they could be placed on leave (which, remember, carries no imputation of guilt at all) based on one single letter full of unsubstantiated accusations?

Well, if priests could be punished on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, that would indeed be unjust. But since all allegations may be said to be unsubstantiated at the outset, then the fact that the allegations presently consist of one unsubstantiated letter doesn't make it unjust for an investigation to be underway.

What really triggers the process, from what I understand, of any investigation of this nature, whether in the lay, secular world or in the clerical one, is not whether the allegations are unsubstantiated, but whether they are credible.

Here's where I think the language starts to get us in trouble. Many people seem to think "credible" means "Oh, yes, we could see Mr. X or Father Y or Sister Z committing this inappropriate act--we could believe it." But that is not at all what a "credible accusation" means. I am sure that Father Corapi's nearest and dearest believe with all sincerity and to the very core of their beings that he is incapable of the acts mentioned in the letter full of allegations, and they may be--and, let us hope fervently, are!--totally right about that. All that a credible allegation means is that the alleged acts could have been committed as described.

Let us take this outside the clerical realm and into a similar realm, the realm of allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. Suppose a man is accused of sexually harassing an employee by inappropriate talk, off-color jokes, inappropriate physical conduct, or the like. The employee goes to Human Resources and files a written complaint. But the first thing that those responsible for investigating realize is that most of the dates and times on which the employee alleges the acts have occurred, the person she is accusing was either traveling out of the country on company business--trips which she did not make herself--or on vacation. The handful of times when the person she is accusing was actually on the same premises as his accuser, he spent his whole workday in meetings at which at least a dozen people were present; when questioned, none of them recalls seeing any inappropriate activity or hearing any inappropriate speech, and the accuser only attended one of the meetings--and took notes the whole time on a company laptop which were stamped with the date and time electronically.

If such a case occurred, it is probable that either no administrative leave would be necessary or that it would quickly come to an end if it had been instituted; the allegations are simply not credible, and the evidence swiftly reveals that fact.

But if the same employee bringing the same charges--assuming that she is still lying for motives of her own--had very carefully gone over her schedule as well as her boss's, and had thus created her allegations in such a way that the dates and times did correspond to times when she and her boss were working together, it's likely that a full investigation with, perhaps, a protracted leave of absence might be necessary. Even if the allegations still could be proved false, they are credible, because the employee and her employer were actually working together and seen to be working together on the dates and times when she is alleging that harassment occurred.

The problem, of course, is that the credibility of an accusation of misconduct, whether against a priest, a lay person, a teacher, a coach, etc. says nothing about the truth or falsehood of those allegations. There can be credible accusations which turn out to be true, and credible accusations that turn out to be false. The only kinds of accusations which can be dismissed out of hand without triggering an investigation process or procedure, regardless of the organization etc., are those which have no credibility at all, which are clearly fabricated, or which the accuser recants.

In Fr. Corpai's situation, the former employee has, according to Fr. Corapi's statement, accused him of "...everything from drug addiction to multiple sexual exploits with her and several other adult women." Father then goes on to say the following:
There seems to no longer be the need for a complaint to be deemed “credible” in order for Church authorities to pull the trigger on the Church’s procedure, which was in recent years crafted to respond to cases of the sexual abuse of minors. I am not accused of that, but it seems, once again, that they now don’t have to deem the complaint to be credible or not, and it is being applied broadly to respond to all complaints. I have been placed on "administrative leave" as the result of this.
I've said many times that I know nothing personally about Father Corapi, but I would guess, from the frustration he appears to be expressing, that he is using the word "credible" the way most people would; that is, in that narrow sense meaning "Do we really believe this particular person could even possibly be guilty of such actions?" I can understand that frustration to a certain extent.

But I'm convinced that "credible," in the way it is used to determine whether a complaint must be investigated or not, has the much broader meaning I've used above: that is, that all Father's order could do as a preliminary investigation was to find out whether the woman in question did in fact work with Father Corapi, whether the other women mentioned in the complaint had as well or were known to be associated in some way with him, and whether or not any dates or times mentioned were not completely impossible.

I could, of course, be wrong about this, in which case Father Corapi's superiors really ought to be releasing a ringing vindication of him any minute now; if the accusations could easily be proved not credible in the sense I mean then they probably have been or will be almost immediately. And, yes, in that case it would certainly be appropriate to call for more just procedures--but it is not particularly appropriate, to me, to be assuming that SOLT has acted unjustly or uncharitably by giving non-credible allegations the same treatment to which they would give credible ones. But we can only say that if we realize that a credible allegation means only that it is theoretically possible, no matter how remotely, for the allegations to be true; it most emphatically does not mean that the person accused is presumed in any way to be guilty of any charge.


Liz said...

Thanks, Erin, for an extremely cogent piece!

Kirt Higdon said...

There are two problems here. The first is that most lies are credible (i.e. believable). Otherwise no one would bother to tell them. Even an accusation wrong on dates could still be considered credible since the accuser might be truthful about the events and simply misremember the dates or times. And of course if the accusation involved misconduct years or even decades in the past as was the case with many of the molestation allegations, the accused might find it impossible to alibi himself.

An even more serious problem is the fact that once an accusation is out there many people will believe it, especially if the accused is placed on administrative leave or something similar. It will be assumed that his superiors must know something or they would not have taken action. If he is eventually exonerated, people will just assume he got away with it "like OJ Simpson". Father Corapi is permanently damaged goods at this point and if he is innocent, that is truly unfortunate for him and for the Church.

Susan Kehoe said...

It is Father Corapi who revealed the accusations against him. What is unclear why he did so. It is possible that his order did not intend to publicly disclose the allegations until and investigation was concluded.

Erin great post.

SpasticHedgehog said...

Thank you. This is a much more coherent argument than I could make. I simply don't understand the automatic assumption that SOLT is somehow acting in contravention of the canonical provisions in place. It's like "We trust the episcopate until we don't. Then they're incompetant at best and malicious railroaders at worst."

Rebecca in CA said...

"to find out whether the woman in question did in fact work with Father Corapi, whether the other women mentioned in the complaint had as well or were known to be associated in some way with him, and whether or not any dates or times mentioned were not completely impossible."

That is exactly what I supposed Fr. Corapi to mean when he used the word credible, Erin, though I could be wrong. What I thought he was saying was that an accusatory letter came in and he was immediately put on Administrative Leave of Absence without any preliminary investigation having been done, trying to determine who the people involved were, when the events were supposed to have happened, who the witnesses were, and that kind of thing.

I'm not sure why you think Fr. Corapi is using the word "credible" in the sense of "I would never do that and you should know it"? I know that some commenters are using it that way, but I didn't get that from Fr.s statement.

From what I have seen of the actual canons quoted, what is stated is that the order *may* remove the priest from activity. It is their call. I guess it is being argued by some that this was a pretty bad call, if it is true that the leave was enforced before a preliminary investigation. I think some are saying that because we've been burned by the sex abuse scandal, we are tending towards such a knee-jerk reaction that we are forgetting about principles regarding protecting the innocent. It needs to be recognized that scandal does follow someone, however innocent, throughout their lives, and it seems that if what Fr. Corapi is saying is the case, the process has resembled the proverbial bull in a china shop. I obviously don't know what happened, but I don't think it is out of place to be questioning here.

melanie said...

If you think about it, as damaging as it is to him initially to be immediately put on leave pending investigation, it's actually more fair and less damaging to him in the long run.
Let's say for example that they do not put him on leave, begin to investigate, discover that the truth is harder to discern then they thought THEN put him on leave to further investigate. This truly makes him look guilty. Whereas right now, it simply looks like policy. When and if he is exonerated he will be, and he can move on. It's too bad this is happening to him, but the situation is being handled appropriatly even taking his reputation into consideration. And what he should be saying is, I will wait for the process to play out, and my innocence will be shown. And we can move on from this. If he is innocent, he should trust the policy and the process. Putting him on leave is not an assumption of guilt and people should not assume that it is. It's simply part of the investigative process.

Nicole said...

Just a thought... I can easily see how an innocent person might be frustrated by what to him seems to be lack of credibility, through his own better knowledge of his activities and circumstances. He may not fully grasp that the circumstantial evidence that would exonerate him is not as obvious to those outside, investigating the situation. In this case, his idea of credibility may be faulty (i.e. not wide enough) but it would still be consistent with the sense of the word as you describe it.

Red Cardigan said...

Nicole, that makes a lot of sense to me, and may be more accurate than my assumption that Fr. Corapi was using the sense of "credible" that many of his supporters in various comment boxes seemed to be using.

Kirt, I'm not sure what you think should be done when credible accusations are made--you seem to be saying that revealing them, placing someone on leave, or even acknowledging that accusations have been made is too damaging to permit them to be dealt with at all! That's the sort of attitude that let the cancer of the Scandal spread unchecked for so long.

Melanie, you make a lot of sense. Yes, it would be better if no false allegations were ever made, but unfortunately the only way we can determine if allegations are false is to investigate. If it must be done, it is best that it is done swiftly.

Many people still seem upset about the "placing Fr. Corapi on leave" aspect. Here's the reality: these accusations were made by a former employee and involve other people, some of whom may also be employees. If Fr. Corapi were not placed on leave his presence might inadvertently hinder the investigation process, which ought to be allowed to proceed without hindrance of any sort.

Kirt Higdon said...

What should be done? How about this? Set up a website and publish the entire accusation with all supporting details, including the name of the accuser. Invite anyone willing to give sworn public testimony subject to cross examination to come forward. I know the Church dislikes this type of transparency, but cover up protects both the genuinely guilty and the slanderous accuser. The victim of false accusations has little chance. This problem goes beyond priests. Teachers are especially vulnerable and may lose their jobs and be unemployable even after being exonerated. Parents may lose custody of their children and have great difficulty getting it back. Even in corporate settings, individuals may lose their jobs or find that their careers have suddenly peaked.

I should mention that in a Church sponsored protection of children class which I had to take when I was searching for a job as a teacher, the class was told that any accusation a child made should be believed (because children don't lie) and the child should be told that his accusation is believed. I completed the class, but made the prudent decision never to seek work with minors. Who needs that kind of sword perpetually hanging over them, especially when children are simultaneously being told to report any "inappropriate" activity?

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

Seriously? Did you not read that in the case of Fr. Euteneuer's victim, her doctors and therapists were demanding anonymity from even her parents because of how damaged and traumatized she was, that it is necessary for her healing? Your suggestion might work just fine if every case was a case of false accusation but it's just too ridiculous to even consider when dealing with a real victim.

It seems to me that those who are claiming unfairness for Fr. Corapi have already determined him to be innocent. I would love to see him exonerated if only because we've been beaten down over and over again by the stories of the bad boys. It would certainly be a pleasant change. But more than anything, I pray that the truth will be made plain and clear to everyone involved in this reasonable investigation, no matter what that truth is!

Kirt Higdon said...

During the pre-school witchhunts of the 1980s dozens of innocent lives were ruined and innocent people imprisoned thanks to the most fantastic accusations coaxed out of kids by doctors and therapists who insisted that children never lie. A whole child abuse industry was created and with suitable adjustments it has insinuated its way into the Catholic Church. I am not familiar with the cases of either Fr. Corapi or Fr. Euteneuer although I can testify that Fr. Corapi has at least one obsessive enemy on the basis of being deluged by emails from the man. But I know that anonymous accusations are the enemies of truth and justice.

Anonymous said...

A prediction: Fr. Corapi may survive this one, but it will eventually be revealed that he is not who or what he claims to be. Even the conversion story will come unraveled. Just a hunch.