Anecdotally, it seems more and more Catholic officials are using the old line that was first popularized by some of Richard Nixon’s top aides and spokesmen: “No comment.”
Members of the church hierarchy rarely phrase it so bluntly. More commonly, they say something like “It is our policy to not comment on pending litigation.”
If you’ve followed the decades-long abuse and cover up scandal in the Catholic church – and we at Horowitz Law certainly have – you know that church officials everywhere have pledged over and over again to be ‘open and transparent’ about abuse.
So how do bishops square their often ‘no comment’ responses with their even-more-often-repeated mantra about openness and transparency?
Good question. Sadly, there’s no good answer.
It happens most when stories are written about civil abuse and cover up lawsuits.
But it’s not just civil cases that many Catholic bishops refuse to talk about. Here are just two examples of bishops’ silence in criminal matters.
—In 2005, through a spokesperson, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua “declined to comment” on what was at that time “the nation’s longest-running investigation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy” being conducted by a district attorney.
—Just last week, now defrocked Cardinal Ted McCarrick was arraigned in a Massachusetts courtroom. He’s charged with molesting a teenager. (He’s also being sued in New York and New Jersey for similar offenses.)
He’s the highest ranking U.S. Catholic official to ever face such charges in a criminal case. He’s the first Cardinal to be defrocked because of abuse.
So it was a big deal. But apparently not to his former colleagues in dioceses that he led or where he worked.
“The Archdiocese of New York declined to comment and the Diocese of Metuchen and the Archdiocese of Washington did not respond to requests for comment,” reported the New York Times.
Even worse, however, was the Archdiocese of Newark, which McCarrick headed.
“Maria Margiotta, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said it would be “inappropriate” for the archdiocese to comment on the criminal charges against Mr. McCarrick because he is “a now-private individual who is no longer affiliated with the archdiocese.”
So if a Newark cleric molests a dozen kids in the morning, shoots two dozen adults in the afternoon, but is defrocked that night, Ms. Margiotta and her Newark colleagues will be silent on the 10p.m. news that night?
And it’s not just in cases that have been filed in court. Sometimes, Catholic officials refuse to discuss matters that “soon might be” in litigation, as in the case of Newark’s current Archbishop Joseph Tobin.
Let’s go back for a minute to that claim some bishops make that “Our policy is to make no comment on litigation.” How crazy is that?
Can you imagine telling your spouse “It’s my policy to not clean up after myself” or “My policy is to never wear my seat belt.” Could any of us get by with such a posture?
Maybe in a large, complex corporate entity a CEO is sometimes constrained by ‘company policy.’ And in politics, governors and even presidents are constrained by laws they are largely powerless to change.
But a bishop is the lord of his own kingdom. Short of violating official Catholic doctrine, he can basically make any policy he likes.
Let’s therefore be crystal clear: when a church official claims it’s against ‘our policy’ to talk about lawsuits, he or she is really saying it’s ‘against my bishop’s personal policy, which of course he could reverse instantly if he so chooses.’
It’s disingenuous for a top Catholic official to imply ‘I’d sure like to tell the truth but I can’t’ because of some alleged ‘policy’ that he himself set up.
So in light of this, we at Horowitz Law have a simple suggestion: In the court of public opinion, let’s follow the example of real courts, regarding a doctrine or precedent called the “adverse inference instruction.”
In civil courts, when one party withholds information that a judge says the other side is legitimately entitled to, a judge often tells jurors they should essentially assume the worst, that is, they should infer, from the refusal to disclose, that the information would portray the withholding party in a bad light.
So every time a defendant in a child sex abuse and cover up case – especially involving Catholic institutions – publicly says any version of ‘no comment,’ let’s do the same. Let’s do what common sense dictates. Let’s all assume that church officials are continuing to cover up.
And perhaps a good way to end this piece is with one of our favorite quotes:
Author, speaker and business consultant Price Pritchett once said “Everybody makes honest mistakes, but there’s no such thing as an honest cover-up.”