The Indictment of Bishop Finn

by Michael Sean Winters

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No one should rush to judgment regarding the indictment of Bishop Robert Finn on charges of failing to protect a minor. No matter what you think of Finn – and I confess I am glad he is not my bishop – he deserves all the rights our criminal justice system affords any defendant. The recent episode with Dominique Strauss-Kahn shows what happens when people rush to judgment.

The principle that all people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty has become one of the foundation stones of our jurisprudence, as important in its way as is the right not to incriminate oneself, the right to a lawyer, etc. These are the judicial foundation stones upon which a just civilization is built and they were hard-won over many centuries. The powerful always have a special knack for corrupting whatever they touch, but the less arbitrary, the more codified, the more transparent, a society’s judicial system, the harder it is to for the powerful to turn it to their own ends. From Magna Carta through Brown v. Board of Education, the story of the English-speaking world’s judicial culture has been one of expanding rights for all and the administration of justice equally to all men and women, with plenty of setbacks along the way to be sure.

Strictly speaking, of course, the idea that a person accused is nonetheless presumed innocent applies only to the courtroom itself and, even there, it is not absolute. For example, it does not prevent a judge from ordering a defendant remanded to prison before trial, in case there is a risk that the person accused might flee or perpetrate a further crime. The underlying charge has not been proven, but a judge decides if the evidence presented is sufficient, not to prove guilt beyond all reasonable doubt, but to sustain a case and require incarceration in advance of the trial. And, of course, the dictum does not apply at all in the court of public opinion.

It should. Conservatives, of both the political and ecclesiastical type, tend to be strict constructionists. They inveigh against the “spirit of the law” or the “spirit of Vatican II” and insist that people act only upon what a given text says. But, there is, in fact, a "spirit" to our laws and in this case, I think the idea that we should presume innocence is something not only for a judicial proceeding but for the rest of us too. It is so easy to presume the worst about someone, so easy to delight in the fall of the mighty, so easy to accept as fact a distorted account of events. We all bring our own prejudices with us to every circumstance. And so, the judicial dictum that every man or woman should be presumed innocent until proven guilty should be understood not only in its letter but in its spirit. It has something to teach us and that something is that we never know the whole story and, human nature being what it is, it is best to put constraints upon any judicial system to keep us from rushing to judgment in the heat of passion. I hope, in this case, conservatives will listen to the spirit of the law and not just its letter.

Anyone who has sat in the jury box knows that evidence is often ambiguous and can always be seen from different angles. All human activities, including crimes, happen within a context and while that context may not excuse a crime, it might mitigate it. This is why the rules of evidence are so strict and the standards for conviction so high.

Bishop Finn, like all citizens, has a right to a trial by a jury of his peers. He has a right to avoid self-incrimination. He has the right to use every legal advantage our judicial system affords the accused, and those advantages are not small and they are not unimportant: We want a system that makes it hard to send a man to jail. Anyone who would seek to deny Bishop Finn his rights to defend himself spits at one of the, you will pardon the adjective, cardinal achievements of Western civilization.

Of course, there is one person to whom the requirement that we presume the innocence of the accused does not apply and that is the accused himself. He or she, of course, knows the truth of the matter and can admit to a crime at any time. Even if his lawyers tell him that the case will be difficult to prove, that prosecutors do not have a slam dunk, the defendant knows whether or not he did the crime. He, too, is well positioned to know how a trial will affect himself and those he loves.

Bishop Finn has every right to defend himself. But, he does not have the right to drag the Church of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and indeed the entire Catholic Church, through all the pain of a trial. Whatever his lawyers say, surely he is aware that even if he was found not guilty, his ability to lead the local Church has already been greatly diminished. It would be one thing if these charges stemmed from decisions taken fifteen or twenty years ago. But, the actions that form the basis of the indictment happened almost ten years after the bishops of the United States adopted the Dallas Norms for the Protection of Children. Since 2002, the bishops have been put on notice by each other that they must be especially vigilant when it comes to clergy disposed to abuse children. For almost ten years, the bishops have promised the people in the pews that they would be so vigilant, that sick priests would not be coddled, that children would not be exposed to harm, and that the bishops themselves would never fail to report any charges to the civil authorities. Whether or not Bishop Finn’s actions meet the standards of civil court, they directly contradict the spirit and the letter of the Dallas Norms. For this reason, he should resign immediately or the Holy See should depose him.

Bishop Finn has put the entire credibility of the hierarchy in question anew and unless he resigns or his resignation is demanded, that credibility will further erode day after day. First, there will be the mug shots and the perp walk. Then there will be endless rounds of discovery, in which documents about the crimes of Father Ratigan, the priest accused of sex abuse, will be further uncovered and those already uncovered will be given more media attention. Then, there will be the trial. In our culture, such trials are the stuff of celebrity media. Finn’s trial will, like the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, warrant a mention in every news program for every day the trial goes on. Should the people of Kansas City-St. Joseph have to endure that? We do not need any rules of evidence to answer that question. No. Bishop Finn should resign, that is clear.

Let Bishop Finn have his day in court, but he has no right to bring the rest of the Church into the dock with him. And, the authorities in Rome need to demand that he resigns. Again, he has a right to all the protections we afford the accused, but he has forfeited whatever moral right he once had to lead the local Church in Kansas City-St. Joseph. He should go. And he should go now.

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