Editor's Space

The Presumption of Innocence

On Jan. 30, an appeals court in France overturned the suspended jail sentence against Cardinal Philippe Barbarin for failing to report abuse. Cardinal Barbarin is the highest-profile French prelate implicated so far in the clerical abuse crisis.

Cardinal Barbarin, nevertheless, announced that he will ask Pope Francis to allow him to resign, even after he was found not guilty of the accusation of failing to report abuse. The French cardinal is 69 years old and isn’t required to present his resignation to the Holy Father until he turns 75.

“This court decision allows me to turn a page and for the church of Lyon to open a new chapter,” Cardinal Barbarin said. “I will now go to Rome to renew my request. Once again, I will hand over my office as archbishop of Lyon to Pope Francis.”

We don’t know why he decided to submit a letter of resignation to the pope, but it is a sign of the damage caused by the accusation. Most likely, his acquittal won’t have the resonance in the press that the accusation did.

The situation in France reminds me of the case of Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia. In December 2018, New South Wales state District Court Judge Roy Ellis acquitted him of charges after the archbishop appealed his conviction by a lower court for concealing the sexual abuse of two altar boys by a pedophile priest in the 1970s.

Pope Francis had accepted Archbishop Wilson’s resignation in July 2018 while his appeal was in progress. Before his acquittal, the Australian archbishop had served almost four months of a yearlong home detention sentence at his sister’s house.

Archbishop Wilson, who was already suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, remained in retirement after been acquitted of the charges. He has visited the Diocese of Brooklyn several times, and I wonder how many people heard of his trial and his final exoneration. Given the coverage that the news received — the trial and his acquittal — many may know about the accusation and initial sentence but not about the final result of the case.

In both instances, the damage was done by the time of the trial, and there is no way to repair it. Once accused, the archbishop and the cardinal were condemned in the court of public opinion.

In the long purgatory of the sexual abuse crisis in the church, the thousands of victims who were denied justice — or received it after many years — have been and should always be our priority. They should always be at the center of our prayers and our efforts to give them the justice they deserve and the help they need to heal.

Whatever happened in cases like the ones I mention here could be seen as a consequence of the previous sins and crimes committed by members of the clergy in the past.

But cases like Cardinal Barbarin and Archbishop Wilson’s make you wonder about the limits of human justice in general and the presumption of innocence in particular.

In March 2018, Cardinal Barbarin offered Pope Francis his resignation in person at a meeting in the Vatican. The Holy Father refused to accept it, invoking the presumption of innocence and asking Cardinal Barbarin to take any necessary measures during the trial to guarantee the wellbeing of his diocese. That wasn’t a popular decision, and the pope was widely criticized in the press for it.

Justice delayed is justice denied. And maybe that was at the bottom of those comments in the press. But the presumption of innocence is at the foundation of justice. We agree to put our own judgments and opinions on hold until the accused has received a fair trial. Without that presumption, justice is unattainable.

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