Believe the children! (Sometimes)

On p. B1 of Friday’s Los Angeles Times, as story headlined “Some Priests are Suing their Accusers” reports that a priest accused of having molsested a girl three decades ago has filed libel suits against the law firm which posted on its website the complaint naming him and against the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which has distributed and posted leflets identifying him as a sexually abusive priest.

The story, scupulously balanced in the usual journalistic fashion (it reports opposite assertions by interested parties without providing any evidence that would help the reader decide who is right), is built on the theme that such suits resemble the SLAPP suits that developers use to intimidate those who organize to try to block their projects.

[The Napa Valley News reports the same story without any reference to SLAPP but with some additional detail: the accuser was eight years old at the time of the asserted molestation, didn’t come to recall the event until many years later, and is the only person to have accused this priest.]

Also on page B1 is a report on the sentencing of the three 11-year-old-girls who falsely accused a man of having molested them, as a result of which he spent eight months in jail.

Commentary seems almost superfluous.

But if it’s true, as reported, that 4400 priests have been accused of sexual misconduct, it would be extraordinary if at least several of those complaints weren’t false. And why should the victim of a false report be unable to sue for libel, merely because the report is about something especially awful that lots of people resembling the libel victim actually did?

The story about the priest suing says the name of the woman whose complaint lies at the center of the story “is being withheld because The Times generally does not publish the names of victims of sexual abuse.” Petitio principii, anyone?

None of this changes the basic facts of the priestly molestation story: a widespread problem (4% of all priests have been accused, most of them, no doubt, accurately) covered up due to the cynical and well co-ordinated efforts of the Church and the cowardice of the press: an unworthy cowardice, to be sure, but one well-founded on the willingness and capacity of the Chuch to exact retribution.

But the priest in this story (whose name is being withheld because it’s my policy to withhold the names of libel victims) isn’t a political counter; he’s a human being. And it looks to me no worse than even money that he has gotten, and continues to get, a raw deal, from the newspapers and — if his suit is dismissed under the anti-SLAPP law — from the legal system.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: