When a priest is accused

I’ve heard a lot of questions and comments in the last 24 hours about the treatment of Monsignor Wallace Harris.

images.jpegAs I wrote here yesterday, he is the prominent New York priest — coordinator of the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium — who has been twice accused of sexual abuse against minors.

The question I keep hearing: Why is Harris being portrayed as guilty before any conclusions have been reached?

The comment I keep hearing: Harris is too good of a priest for this to be true. The accusations must be unfounded.

I get the sense that after a couple of quiet years in terms of sex-abuse cases, people have forgotten what transpired in 2002. Unless I’m missing something, Harris has been treated just as other New York priests have since the national crisis occurred.

In 2002, the American bishops adopted their one-strike policy in regard to clerics who abuse minors. Also that year, the Archdiocese of New York set up a new policy to deal with accusations.

As with other cases, an initial accusation against Harris was studied by a lay review board of the archdiocese, which looks for basic credibility. The accusation — which dates back more than 20 years — was referred to the Manhattan DA’s office. The DA’s office heard of a second accusation, which also dates back more than 20 years.

Nothing is likely to come of the legal investigation because the accusations are too old. This is often the situation with abuse allegations.

In the meantime, the archdiocese directed Harris to not function as a priest until the lay review board makes a final recommendation to Cardinal Egan. The case may also be referred to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for final review before Egan acts.

This is the part that really disturbs people who feel that Harris is being punished before he has been found guilty of anything.

Some priests have languished in this state for years before their cases have been resolved. The most infamous case in New York is that of Monsignor Charles Kavanagh, who was removed from ministry in 2002 because of an allegation of abuse, had a rare church trial in November 2006 and is still waiting for a resolution.

What ultimately happens to Harris is Egan’s call. Harris can be returned to ministry if found to be innocent. Or he can be punished by being defrocked or sentenced to a life of prayer and penance.

One priest accused of abuse since 2002 has been returned to ministry.

A lot priests and others don’t like the way the system works these days. How many times have I heard a priest say “All it would take would be one person to falsely accuse me of something from back in seminary, and I would be ruined.”

But it appears that everyone is paying the cost for inaction on the part of too many bishops before 2002.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.