Publicly naming those charged

Another sex scandal in the Catholic Church is unfolding in a Philadelphia court. Four priests and a teacher in a Catholic school face charges of sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of children.

Distressing as this is, it isn’t surprising given all that we know about pedophilia by priests and the Church’s cover-up. I am thinking back to a decade ago when I was teaching a course in religious ethics. Each week I invited a different guest to represent a religion. On two occasions I invited Msgr. Alan Placa, a representative from the Rockville Center Diocese. Shortly after visiting my class, he appeared in Newsday and elsewhere in the New York area, accused of molesting teenage boys. The grand jury dismissed the case against because the statute of limitations had expired. The Church, which pursued its own investigation, found him innocent in 2009.

After reading about Placa, I decided I wouldn’t invite him to address my class again. I’m not a judge in a court of law, but I do make moral judgments about people nevertheless. The public testimony by one of Placa’s accusers, the fact that his case was dismissed not for a lack of evidence but because it hadn’t been brought soon enough, and the dubious manner in which the Church has handled allegations against priests was enough for me to reach a conclusion about his suitability as an honored guest in my classroom.

Reading about the Philadelphia priests and thinking about Placa, however I am left questioning the propriety of releasing the names of those charged with a crime even before trial, no less whether they are convicted. The contrast between how the US media handles these situations and similar ones in other countries is instructive.

I watch BBC news most days and I have noticed that when a person is on trial the face is blurred and no name is given. The name and image is made public only after a conviction. (The situation is different with a prominent and public figure.)

This is a sensible position, one that balances the right to privacy with the need for the public to know. Where this leaves situations like Placa’s and the priests’ isn’t so clear. My thought is that little is gained by knowing the priests’ names, although their parishioners may strongly disagree. Placa, I think, is different, given the high-profile position he held in the Church hierarchy. He is more like the politicians or entertainers who by virtue of their roles have given up a degree of privacy.

Actually, I think the private lives of politicians and entertainers should be given wider scope than that accorded to those whose work rests upon trust and an assumption of integrity. A politician having an affair or a musician having a kinky sex life usually doesn’t affect what they do in their professional capacity; being suspected of molesting children is another matter. It is all the more a moral transgression when the person is held out to be a paragon of virtue, a role model for an ethical community.


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