News Analysis

The trouble with lists of ‘credibly accused’ priests

Frédéric Martel’s new book, Inside the Closet of the Vatican, was supposed to expose a “velvet mafia” calling the shots in the Eternal City. Martel, an atheist and gay rights activist, was especially interested in exposing the “hypocrisy” of “rigid” conservatives: by day, they decry homosexuality in the press; by night, they chase rent boys through St Peter’s Square.

Yet Martel’s report was, according to many reviewers, badly undermined by its propensity for innuendo. For instance, the author seems to have a special dislike for Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most powerful conservatives in the College of Cardinals. Martel describes Burke as sitting on “an asparagus-green throne twice as large as he is, surrounded by silvery drapery”, etc. He quotes a drag queen as saying that Burke’s love for grand, traditional accoutrement betrays a “fluid and queer” gender identity.

Whether the drag queen has any training in psychology isn’t revealed, but (to my own untrained mind) that doesn’t sound like the sort of diagnosis that would hold up to professional scrutiny. Nonetheless, Burke’s opponents relish Martel’s dig, however spurious.

But now a friend of Cardinal Burke’s has come under scrutiny for a much more serious charge: sexual abuse of a minor. Mgr Joseph Punderson, who was ordained in the Diocese of Trenton in 1976, but studied with Burke at the North American College in Rome. Burke was named Defender of the Bond for the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judiciary in the Catholic Church, in 1989; Punderson joined him at the Signatura in 1993 as Deputy Promoter of Justice. When Pope John Paul II appointed Burke to the Diocese of La Crosse in 1995, Punderson succeeded him as Defender. They again worked together when Burke served as prefect of the Signatura between 2008 and 2014. The two have co-authored several books and scholarly articles.

Then, last week, the Diocese of Trenton released a list of 30 of their priests who have been “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors. Mgr Punderson was among them. Again, many critics of Burke and the conservative wing will use this as ammunition. Yet the case is not as simple as it first appears.

When Theodore McCarrick was first “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting a teenager five decades prior, few commentators were willing to demand he be given a fair hearing. And no doubt this has partially to do with the nature of Church procedures for dealing with abuse allegations. While there may no longer be any hard evidence of McCarrick’s crimes – such as would hold up in a New York supreme court, for instance – the Holy See has far more discretion when meting out punishment.

But once the deluge of accusations began – the frequent trips to seminaries, the beach house, the outings with “Uncle Ted” and his “nephews” – what few Devil’s advocates there were quickly fell silent. No one now argues that McCarrick has been treated too harshly. If anything, most would say his punishment (laicisation and confinement to a monastery) is far too light.

Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that the phrase “credibly accused” is still vague. What, exactly, does it mean? The accusation is apparently credible enough that the diocese feels comfortable listing Mgr Punderson alongside those convicted of abuse. Yet it did not give details about the accusation and he has not been laicised. Catholics (quite understandably) want more transparency, more justice – more predators being wrested from the shadows and forced to face their crimes. And Church authorities don’t require anything so rigorous as DNA evidence or CCTV footage to determine that, in order to protect their flock, a priest ought to be removed from public ministry.

But innocent priests are also guaranteed “due process” by the Dallas Charter (tainted though it is by McCarrick’s hand). “When necessary,” it says, “the diocese/eparchy will supply canonical counsel to [an accused] priest or deacon.” Moreover, “when the accusation has proved to be unfounded, every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the priest or deacon.”

This is why many – including Pope Francis – are uneasy about these lists of “credibly accused” priests that dioceses are publishing. In Trenton’s list some names are accompanied by disturbing, in-depth reports of the priest’s history of abuse; others just give the priest’s past assignments, the number of alleged victims, the cleric’s current status and a disclaimer saying that further information isn’t available. This was the case with Mgr Punderson, who has been officially accused by one person. According to the Asbury Park Press, which published the list: “The allegations against him are unclear.”

The Diocese of Trenton clarified that Mgr Punderson’s alleged victim came forward in 2003, and that the abuse had allegedly taken place 26 years prior. The diocese said it reported him to “the appropriate prosecutor”, who declined to charge him. The Holy See was also informed, and Mgr Punderson offered his resignation, but it was also declined.

Was this resignation an admission of guilt? Why did the Vatican refuse his resignation? We don’t know, and won’t be able to say with any certainty until Trenton or the Holy See provides further clarification.