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Father John Corapi and the State of Due Process for Accused Priests

[Second Editor’s note: We have appended the message of June 20 from SOLT.]

[Editor’s note: In light of today’s news about Fr. Corapi, we are rerunning this article which originally appeared on Catholic Lane on April 4 ,2011. We have appended Fr. Corapi’s message, released today, to the end of this article, as it stunningly validates the points made herein.]

 Unlike many cases of accused Catholic priests, accusations against Father John Corapi have focused a spotlight on due process in the Catholic Church.

A zero-tolerance policy without due process that de facto impugns the reputations of the accused is immoral. The Church has a duty to protect the innocent, even if the innocent is a priest.  Of course, the Church has a moral duty to make sure that the scandal of abuse and cover-up is never repeated, but it cannot willfully sacrifice the reputations of the innocent . . . The end does not justify the means. I do not know that any of this applies to the Father Corapi case, but we have seen this happen in other cases too and it is wrong — Pat Archbold, March 20, 2011 at www.NCRegister.com/blog [1]

[2]Those are some of the sanest words I have read about the matter of Father John Corapi, a gifted priest who, at this writing, has been sidelined by accusations of sex and drug abuse brought by an unidentified adult woman.

Before I write further, I should point out that unlike many of those writing on this topic in the Catholic on-line world, I am not a follower of Father Corapi. I don’t dislike him either. His preaching style and message just haven’t touched me the way they seem to have touched many others. I simply mean to say that I am not a disgruntled fan driven to champion the cause of a spiritual icon whose good name has been cast into the abyss. If Father Corapi never preached in public again, that fact alone would elicit no emotional response from me beyond my concern for justice.

Yet I am deeply troubled, like Father Corapi himself, by a zero tolerance policy that treats accused priests as if they were guilty unless they can manage to prove themselves innocent. As Father Corapi pointed out in his statement, the “damage to the accused is immediate, irreparable, and serious,” and the procedure for addressing it “has little regard for any form of meaningful due process.” This must not be the last word in a Church built upon the Truth of the Gospel.

I cannot speak directly to the case of Father John Corapi except to point out the inherent injustice of it. I have been writing for some time about the state of justice and due process for Catholic priests who are accused. Like many Catholics, I was angry about the sex abuse scandal in the priesthood. In 2002, I was aghast at the revelations that swept out of Boston across the U.S. detailing claims of abuse by priests. This went on below the public radar for years while bishops moved some accused priests from parish to parish erring on the side of misguided assurances by treatment centers and psychologists.

I was angry about all this until I became aware of the extent to which our Church and our priests have been subjected to rampant fraud. As unjust as the Father Corapi case is, it is at least current. He and his supporters at least have an opportunity to gather information that could point to less than stellar motives for his accuser’s claims. Already, the claim has has surfaced that his accuser — whose name, to date, has been shielded from public scrutiny — had previously threatened to “destroy” Father Corapi. If clear evidence of guilt is not forthcoming soon, then it is time for the true voice of the faithful to help restore Fr. John Corapi’s good name and ministry.

Mounting any defense at all, however, is simply not a luxury that most accused priests have had. In the early 1990s, insurance companies ended coverage for damages when Catholic institutions were sued in sex abuse claims. Since then, a full seventy percent of the claims against priests have alleged abuse that is decades old, and for which no clear evidence of either guilt or innocence could possibly exist.

In all claims against priests in the United States since 2002, the accused priests — if they are even still living — have been placed on “administrative leave,” but often with little hope of ever clearing their names. Their bishops assure them and the public that their suspensions are “pending investigation,” but there is often no legitimate investigation. How could there be after the passage of decades? Many of the claims are deemed “credible” solely because a diocese fears litigation and decides to settle.

While sitting at my computer typing this, I received an e-mail from a prominent  U. S. Catholic writer informing me of another case that has arisen in his diocese. An 80-year-old man has just demanded settlement for alleged sex abuse by a priest some sixty-five years ago. The priest, who had never before been accused, died over fifty years ago, but this fact did not cause the diocesan PR handlers to question the claim at all. On the way to settlement, they issued a press release calling for “any other victims of Father X to come forward.” His name has already been released to the public as a “credibly” accused sex offender priest.

In his landmark 2010 book, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church [3], David F. Pierre, Jr. described the “due process” extended to priests in one diocese during a typical round of mediated settlements:

In 2002, [the Manchester] New Hampshire diocese faced accusations of abuse from 62 individuals. Rather than spending the resources and the time looking into the merits of the cases, ‘Diocesan officials did not even ask for specifics such as the dates and specific allegations for the claims’ New Hampshire’s Union Leader reported [Nov. 27, 2002] . . .  It was almost as simple as a trip to an ATM machine   . . .  ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ a pleased, and much richer, plaintiff attorney admitted” — Double Standard [3], pp 125-126).

I have researched and written extensively about the case of one falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned priest from the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire who was one of the subjects of the mediated settlement described above. Father Gordon MacRae writes weekly for a remarkable Catholic blog, These Stone Walls (www.TheseStoneWalls.com [4]) . He could have left prison over 14 years ago had he actually been guilty and willing to say so. Father MacRae will remain in prison for sixty-seven years unless his case can be overturned with new evidence. That’s ironic given that he was convicted with no evidence at all beyond the word of someone who walked away with $200,000 from the priest’s diocese. In one of the most egregious subversions of due process I have seen, the Diocese of Manchester issued a press release declaring him guilty before his trial.

One of Father MacRae’s accusers recanted this year, and provided a disturbing account of how he was enticed by others into falsely accusing the priest with the promise of a vast windfall of money. It is in fact money — not sex, not abuse, and not celibacy– that has driven the scandal since 2002 and sabotaged the civil liberties of accused priests. Father John Corapi’s superiors should reveal any financial demand brought by his accuser/s as well as their history of settlement of such demands.

Dredging for Dollars

Many Catholics have not yet seen through attempts in various states to extend civil statutes of limitations so that Catholic institutions can be sued long after current time limits have expired. The trend is based on a dubious claim that victims of abuse require decades to come forward. The claim is baseless. People are accused of sex abuse in the U.S. every day. Public school teachers are exponentially more likely than priests to be accused of abuse, but only priests routinely face claims that are decades old. A pattern of mediated settlement of these claims without thorough investigation has placed all of our priests in harm’s way.

Around the U.S., bishops and other Catholic leaders have rallied support to oppose extensions of civil statutes of limitations. As more than one bishop has pointed out, statutes of limitations exist in legal systems to promote justice, not hinder it. Witnesses die, memories fade, facts are blurred, and justice is subverted by old claims. Our bishops are justified in opposing “ex post facto” laws that have but one goal: to target and bankrupt the Catholic Church.

There is a problem, however, and it’s a serious one for Catholics concerned about due process for accused priests.  “Prescription” is a term in Church law that describes the length of time in which a delict (a crime) exists and must be prosecuted. Canon law placed time limits on prescription because the Church long ago recognized the challenge to justice when accusations against priests are so old that there could be no legitimate investigation or defense.

So at the very same time many bishops opposed retroactive extensions of statutes of limitations in civil law, the U.S. bishops as a body heavily lobbied the Holy See for retroactive dispensation of the Church’s own statute of limitations. The result is that no matter how long ago an accusation was claimed to have occurred, the priests accused are removed from ministry, placed on administrative leave, and subjected to draconian penalties including possible dismissal from the priesthood without trial or any defense at all. Once accused, many priests cannot afford lawyers to protect their own rights while their bishops’ and accusers’ lawyers enter into settlement negotiations.

Our bishops must not argue statutes of limitations from two polar opposite points of view depending on their own interests. If extending statutes of limitations is unjust in civil law, it is equally unjust in canon law. I do not write this because I wish to be seen in confrontation with Church officials. On the contrary, I love our Church. However, this blatant double standard, and the rampant suppression of the rights of accused priests that results from it, is poised to be the next wave of The Scandal.

The Church must Herself be a mirror of justice. Cases like the one presented by Father John Corapi can, if true, cast a harsh light upon the state of justice and due process in the Church.  An accusation, without evidence or corroboration, becomes enough to remove a priest from ministry indefinitely, and often forever.  We are uncertain at this juncture of the exact evidence or corroboration presented by Father Corapi’s accuser to his superiors and bishop.  The fact that Father Corapi protests his administrative leave would lead an objective observer to conclude that Father Corapi himself believes the process to be unjust.  He is in a unique position to inform Catholics of the precarious state of civil rights, due process, and a presumption of innocence when priests are accused.


Message of June 17 from Fr. Corapi:

God Love You, God Bless You, and Good-Bye. [5]

This Sunday, June 19, 2011, is both Trinity Sunday on the Catholic liturgical calendar and Fathers’ Day on the secular calendar. It is a day I’ll never forget, and sadly so. It is the twentieth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. For twenty years I was called “father.” I am very thankful for those twenty years. I could have easily died any number of times, any number of ways in my life before that, so I consider it all a bonus, an undeserved bonus. To all of you that have communicated support, ordination anniversary congratulations, and other kind sentiments, I am greatly thankful, and I do not take that for granted.

All things change, only God stays the same, so I have to tell you about a major change in my life. I am not going to be involved in public ministry as a priest any longer. There are certain persons in authority in the Church that want me gone, and I shall be gone. I have been guilty of many things in the course of my life, and could easily and justifiably be considered unfit to engage in public ministry as a priest. The present complaint that you have heard about is, as far as I know, from the one person that I can honestly say I did more to help and support than any human being in my entire life. I forgive her and hope only good things for her. I am not going to get into a back and forth or argument with the Church or anyone else about this matter.

Suffice it to say that I love the Catholic Church and accept what has transpired. Unfortunately, the process used is inherently and fatally flawed, but the bishops have the power, apparently, to operate anyway they see fit. I cannot give a lengthy explanation of what has transpired, but I can tell you that the most likely outcome is that they leave me suspended indefinitely and just let me fade away. They can’t prove I’m guilty of the things alleged because I’m not, and they can’t prove I’m innocent because that is simply illogical and impossible. All civilized societies know that. Certain leaders in the Catholic Church apparently do not.

I accept moving on, but I am not ready to be altogether extinguished just yet. In the final analysis I have only one of only two viable choices:
1. I can quietly lie down and die, or
2. I can go on in ways that I am able to go on.

I did not start this process, the Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas ordered my superiors, against their will and better judgment, to do it. He in fact threatened to release a reprehensible and libelous letter to all of the bishops if they did not suspend me. He has a perfect right to do so, and I defend that right. Bishops aren’t bound by civil laws and procedures in internal Church matters. I agree with that, and would defend to the death the Church’s right to proceed as they see fit. He is the bishop and he has the right to govern as he sees fit. It isn’t an easy task. Many forces besiege him, including pressure from other bishops.

My canon lawyer and my civil lawyers have concluded that I cannot receive a fair and just hearing under the Church’s present process. The Church will conclude that I am not cooperating with the process because I refuse to give up all of my civil and human rights in order to hold harmless anyone who chooses to say defamatory and actionable things against me with no downside to them. The case may be on hold indefinitely, but my life cannot be. Some of the things that might surprise you about the way some of the bishops treat accused priests are as follows:

1.    The identity of the accuser is not revealed. You can guess, but you don’t actually know. Nor are the exact allegations made known to you. Hence, you have an interesting situation of having to respond to an unknown accuser making unknown accusations (unknown to the accused and his counsel).

2.    The persons chosen to investigate the allegations normally have no qualifications to do so. They certainly didn’t graduate from the FBI academy, nor do they have any other background to qualify them to interrogate or otherwise interview witnesses.

3.    There are no set rules of evidence or norms of procedure.

4.    You are for all practical purposes assumed guilty until you can prove you are innocent. This one is truly baffling. No civilized society operates that way. If you are accused of something you are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

5.    The accused and his counsel have no right to obtain and review any of the evidence against him.

6.    The accused and his counsel are not provided the names of witnesses, nor are they permitted to cross-examine them.

7. There is a general unwillingness or outright refusal by certain of the         bishops to abide by applicable statutes of limitations, both in canon and civil law. There are good reasons for these statutes. Time has a way of clouding memories and distorting perceptions.

By the way, Canon Law does not dictate this. They choose to selectively ignore or violate both Canon Law and Civil Law, as they deem appropriate and or expeditious. Once again, they apparently have the discretionary power to do this, and if that’s the way it is I have to accept that as reality.

The bottom line is that the only way a just outcome is likely, in my view and that of my counsel, both civil and canon lawyers, is by accident, rather than as a result of the process.

I will not try to fight this irrational and unjust situation for the simple reason that I don’t want to be placed in an adversarial posture against the Church. For 20 years I did my best to guard and feed the sheep. Now, based on a totally unsubstantiated, undocumented allegation from a demonstrably troubled person I was thrown out like yesterday’s garbage. I accept that. Perhaps I deserve that.

I can’t do what I can’t do. I can only do what I can do. I shall continue, black sheep that I am, to speak; and sheep dog that I am, to guard the sheep—this time around not just in the Church, but also in the entire world. I am, indeed, not ready to be extinguished. Under the name “The Black Sheep Dog,” I shall be with you through radio broadcasts and writing. My autobiography, “The Black Sheep Dog,” is almost ready for publication. My topics will be broader than in the past, and my audience likewise is apt to be broader. I’ll do what I can under the circumstances.

Please don’t bother the bishop or complain because it will do no good and it wastes valuable time and energy, both his and yours.

I hope you stay with us and follow us into our new domain and name of “The Black Sheep Dog.” Through writing and broadcasting we hope to continue to dispense truth and hope to a world so much in need of it. For those of you who choose to part company and go away from us, we wish you well and thank you for your many kindnesses over the years. We’ll miss you in our usual meeting places, but assure you that there will be new places for us to meet, just like in “the good old days,” so for now,

God bless you, God love you, and goodbye.

John Corapi (once called “father,” now “The Black Sheep Dog”)


Message of June 20 from SOLT [6]

Official SOLT Statement Regarding Fr John Corapi

As the Regional Priest Servant of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT), I issue the following statement on behalf of the Society.

On 16 March 2011, the Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, and the SOLT received a complaint against Fr. John Corapi, SOLT. As is normal procedure and due to the gravity of the accusation alleging conduct not in concert with the priestly state or his promises as a member of a society of apostolic life of diocesan right, Fr. Corapi was suspended from active ministry (put on administrative leave) until such a time that the complaint could be fully investigated and due process given to Fr. Corapi. In the midst of the investigation, the SOLT received a letter from Fr. Corapi, dated June 3, 2011, indicating that, because of the physical, emotional and spiritual distress he has endured over the past few years, he could no longer continue to function as a priest or a member of the SOLT. Although the investigation was in progress, the SOLT had not arrived at any conclusion as to the credibility of the allegations under investigation.

At the onset, the Bishop of Corpus Christi advised the SOLT to not only proceed with the policies outlined in their own constitutions, but also with the proper canonical procedures to determine the credibility of the allegations against Fr. Corapi. We reiterate that Fr. Corapi had not been determined guilty of any canonical or civil crimes. If the allegations had been found to be credible, the proper canonical due process would have been offered to Fr. Corapi, including his right to defense, to know his accuser and the complaint lodged, and a fair canonical trial with the right of recourse to the Holy See. On June 17, 2011, Fr. John Corapi issued a public statement indicating that he has chosen to cease functioning as a priest and a member of the SOLT.

The SOLT is deeply saddened that Fr. Corapi is suffering distress. The SOLT is further saddened by Fr. Corapi’s response to these allegations. The SOLT will do all within its power to assist Fr. Corapi if he desires to seek a dispensation from his rights and obligations as a priest and as a professed member of the SOLT. We request your prayers and the intercession of the Blessed Mother for the healing of Fr. Corapi and for any who have been negatively affected by Fr. Corapi’s decision to end his ministry as a priest and a member of the SOLT.

Fr Gerrard Sheehan, SOLT
Regional Priest Servant