Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Postscript: Voris, Victims, and Witch Trials

Scene from Columbus State University production of
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. (Image © CSU.)
Yesterday, in this blog, I published a post in which I took exception to Michael Voris’ brief but startling allegation that the Archdiocese of New York was seeking to discredit himself and Church Militant. Voris’ charge was based “on very good authority from various sources”, sources whose names and credentials Voris didn’t reveal. Since I’ve reported on at least two incidences in which third parties used journalists to smear others by remote, I questioned Voris’ prudence in naming the archdiocese without qualification, especially as the charge necessarily implicates the Archbishop of New York, Cdl. Tim Dolan.

Clerical Skullduggery

A friend of mine, to whom I’ll simply refer as “Valeria”, disagrees with my assessment. Voris’ statement, Valeria says, is “hauntingly familiar”, because she and her family has had an unpleasant experience (putting it mildly) with her local bishop and diocese, about which legal counsel has suggested she reveal little and with great circumspection. Valeria therefore wholeheartedly supports Voris, as have others. “As much as people wish to believe that the Church is infallible,” Valeria told me, “people are not, and thus a significant number of the clergy openly choose to lie and discredit the innocent to protect their mission.”

Agreed once, a thousand times agreed. It would be nice if all our shepherds were honest, wise, good, sane, and zealous for the faith. Unfortunately, just the last fourteen years by themselves have illustrated in sordid Technicolor the fact that the clergy are all too human … that they can be crooks, fools, liars, cowards, and sociopaths just like any one of us. And while in strict justice we’re entitled to leaders who live the gospel message with integrity, if we’re paying attention to our own doctrine, we realize that the hierarchy will have weeds among the wheat just as will the laity (cf. Matthew 13:24-30).

(I can’t help thinking about the elderly Irish monsignor Fr. Andrew M. Greeley once quoted: “Faith, the Bark of Peter must be divine, else we boys would have kicked the bottom out long ago.” Or the reaction of one French cardinal to Napoleon’s claim that he would destroy the Church: “Absurd. We’ve been trying for several centuries to do so without success.”)

However, it’s precisely because of stories like Valeria’s, or the Boston boys abused by the late Fr. John Geoghan, or any other number of stories, that we’re primed to give credence to charges of clerical skullduggery even before the evidence is out in the open. And, unfortunately, malicious people take advantage of this predisposition. For instance, Dave Pierre of The Media Report has spent several years documenting false abuse claims made against priests … claims that, in the wake of the “Long Lent” of 2002, were given automatic credence precisely because the accused were priests.

The Victim’s “Right to Be Believed”

Before I go further, I must state categorically: I have no intention or desire to impugn Michael Voris’ integrity. If I left that impression with any of my readers with my previous post, I offer my apology. I have no reason to doubt he acted on what he thought was a reasonable fear. My sole concern was and is the prudence of naming the Archdiocese of New York as the source of the effort to discredit him.

“Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported,” said Hillary Clinton, a sentiment that many advocates of sexual-abuse victims have echoed. While our natural sympathy for the victims may urge us to agree, let’s think about what this really means: claims of victimization should neither require substantiation nor suffer contradiction. If you don’t immediately believe and support the victim, you’re part of the problem — you’re enabling the victimizers. This “victims have the right to be believed” mentality is a major feature of identity politics as well, as activists demand we treat subjective impressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia as objective facts: “You’re a victim of such-and-such if you think you are.”

“Spectral Evidence”

From June 1692 to May 1693, during the Salem witch trials, over one hundred fifty men, women, and children were accused of witchcraft, twenty of whom were executed or killed, one of whom died in prison, and many of the rest of whom served brief prison sentences before their convictions were reversed and (eventually) annulled. Most of them had been accused by a handful of pre-adolescent girls; the only evidence against them consisted of the “afflicted girls’” claims that the accused’s spirit, or specter, had appeared to them and attacked them in various ways.

Thanks to this arrangement, hallucinations, dreams, and mere fancies would be accepted in court as factual proof not of the psychological condition of the accuser but of the behaviour of the accused. (Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials, p. 54)

Initial cautions about relying on this “spectral evidence” were quickly dismissed as hysteria swept through the region. The “afflicted girls” were given automatic, unquestioning belief; no proof that they had been supernaturally attacked was ever demanded. At least one or two residents openly protested against giving credence to the girls’ testimony, only to find themselves accused (one, John Proctor, was a distant relation of mine). Nine little girls were given the implicit power to ruin lives and destroy a community on the strength of nothing more than their say-so.

Many decades before William Blackstone wrote the formulation that bears his name, a Quaker critic of the Salem trials, Thomas Maule, wrote, “It were better that one hundred Witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a witch, which is not a Witch” (Truth Held Forth and Maintained, ch. 29). Among many other things, the Salem witch trials symbolize the devastation and tragedy that can take place when, out of fear or a distorted notion of right, we allow people to make accusations without corroborative evidence. If we reintroduce “spectral evidence” under the rubric of a “victim’s right to be believed”, we create for ourselves a tyranny of the oppressed. Part of proving guilt is proving victimization occurred.

Credibility vs. Truth

“So what does this have to do with Michael Voris?”, you ask.

Simple: the tendency to award automatic credence to victims’ allegations doesn’t begin and end with sexual assault and identity politics; it crops up all over. For our purposes, it’s definitely a feature of the Catholic blogosphere, particularly where Catholic celebrities are concerned. Let some Prominent Catholic yell out, “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”, and people from all over the Net will come not only to offer comfort to the victim but also to form a virtual mob in order to cyber-lynch the oppressor. (Father John Corapi comes immediately to mind.)

It’s one thing to accept the word of a friend whose integrity is known and who has reason to know the facts; it’s another to accept the word of anonymous strangers whose integrity is a question mark and whose bona fides are clouded in mystery. People do make false accusations (consider the recent anti-gay cake hoax perpetrated in Austin); people do treat rumors, speculation, and suspicions as facts; people do make wild accusations on the slimmest of pretexts. If people couldn’t and didn’t lie, there would be no need for the Eighth Commandment, let alone perjury laws.

To show that an accusation is credible is not the same as to prove that it’s true. Knowing that between 1% and 5% of American adult males are pedophiles won’t tell you whether Joe Schmuckatelli is a pedophile; you’d have to learn more about Joe Schmuckatelli. Knowing that one in three African American men is likely to be imprisoned at some point won’t tell you whether economist Thomas Sowell is likely to go to jail; you’d have to keep close track of Mr. Sowell, verging on invasion of his privacy, to see if he puts himself at risk. Knowing that other bishops and dioceses have launched character attacks against other people doesn’t of itself prove that Voris’ anonymous sources are telling the truth, especially since we have nothing but pure speculation as to the archdiocese’s motive for discrediting him.


So with all due respect to Valeria, Michael Voris, and everyone else in support, I still have to question Voris’ prudence in making such an unqualified accusation against the archdiocese. If it needs repeating, I do not question Voris’ honesty. But until we’re given credible names and a substantiated motive, we need not believe Voris’ accusation of the archdiocese any more than we need believe the scuttlebutt at work about the CEO’s love life. And while I do not grudge Voris a single ounce of support given him for his heartbreaking admission — no, we should not put limits on God’s mercy! — I can’t see where such support requires that we burn Cdl. Dolan at the stake until we’re given more than an accusation.

Your Honor, the defense rests.