Think of exactly how damaging a false accusation against a priest is! He is alter Christus! It is like crucifying Christ once again.
When St. Jean Vianney instructed a penitent to go release a pillow full of feathers and then gather them up after she confessed gossiping, she protested it was impossible. And so is clearing the good name of a falsely accused priest.
Once he is labeled, he's tainted. And I don't know of a single accused priest in the Diocese of Arlington, including those totally exonerated by law enforcement and Church investigation who has returned to active ministry. Not only that, but, the word on the street, is that the diocese is releasing a list of "credibly accused" priests sometime this month. (What the heck does "credibly accused" mean?* Has anyone defined it?) And a priest friend tells me that, because of the diocese's "transparency policy," even those priests who've been exonerated will be on the list.
What's wrong with this picture? How does that serve justice? Will there be a big banner headline attached that reads: EXONERATED - RETURNED TO MINISTRY? One can only hope.
The secular legal system operates on the principle that the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty. That doesn't mean he is innocent. But it means the burden of proof is on the accuser and the state must provide evidence of the alleged perpetrator's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Nowadays it appears all one has to do is accuse a priest and the Queen of Hearts (or the Knave according to your opinion) raises her scepter and screams, "Off with his head."
Since 2002 when the bishops met in Dallas, clergy at the parish level have been in the crosshairs. the bishops didn't include themselves in any of the draconian policies because they, of course, are lily white princes of the Church. (Hey, only 2/3rds of them covered up abuser priests.) It was parish priests and lay volunteers who became the target of fingerprinting and background checks and had to take "safe-touch" training filled with propaganda that homosexuality isn't a problem and children are safer with gays than with their mothers. (Fr. Steve Rossetti, considered an expert, actually alleged that mothers abuse their children under the disguise of cleaning and grooming them.)
It's true that many of the accused priests were, in fact, guilty of sex abuse. They belong in jail, not just removed from the priesthood. But this issue of the "credibly accused" is seriously problematic. Priests are now presumed guilty if they are charged and, even when exonerated, are not being returned to ministry. And some accusations are patently ridiculous like the recent "case" against Fr. Ronald Escalante, pastor of St. Francis de Sales in Purcellville who was placed on administrative leave December 7th for a "boundary issue" also described as "aggressively hugging a child" whose mother was present. Give me a break! We are in a culture now where patting a child on the head or returning a kindergartener's hug can get you arrested. It's nuts!
I am hearing from parishioners at St. Francis de Sales in Purcellville, where Fr. Escalante was pastor, that he is being railroaded. If the information is true, there is a serious problem at that parish and it isn't Fr. Escalante. I'm doing some research on this at present and praying for Father and for his accuser. I know him casually and admire him. I'm also hearing from his brother priests, whom I respect, that he is a good, solid priest. Frankly, I think it's time for priests to bring defamation lawsuits when they are falsely accused. If people have to pay a price for their calumny they may think twice.
I taught fourth grade at St. Louis as an extended substitute for a mom on maternity leave and then as a full time teacher. Many of the children, especially the girls, came up and gave me unsolicited hugs. What was I supposed to do; give them a karate chop or hold up the garlic to ward them off? Priests are totally vulnerable today to malicious individuals with personal grudges. You want to get rid of a conservative pastor? Just accuse him of making you uncomfortable. ("He looked at me and I just knew he wanted to take my clothes off?") Look at what lying liberal women did to Brett Kavanaugh. Is that the environment we're creating in the Church with "credible accusations?" I hope not. But I haven't seen exonerated priests like Fr. Christopher Buckner returned to active ministry and that breaks my heart. Don't tell me we have a priest vocation crisis when bishops are willing to cut off good priests as scapegoats for their own failures in dealing with the sex abuse crisis. (See how vigilant we are to off a priest "credibly accused" of...whatever!)
God have mercy on us and may St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests, intercede for all innocent clergy nailed to the stake of political expediency by bishops trying to avoid Grand Juries! I wish they were as interested in Almighty God as they are in the Almighty dollar.
*The term "credibly accused" doesn't appear to have a consistent definition. In a December 20th article by James Keane from the Jesuits' America Magazine, a periodical I do NOT recommend, the author discussed the "disparities" in how the term is used. He reports on an interview with a Houston TV station where Cardinal DiNardo, bishop of Houston and head of the USCCB, said lawyers were still trying to work out what it meant. (REALLY!) The article goes through the varying definitions from a "semblance of truth" to "not implausible" to "reasonable certainty of truth" based on evidence.
I'm copying below an article from the Blue Ridge Leader about the ridiculous situation that led to Fr. Escalante's removal from ministry.
Blue Ridge Leader, December 9, 2019
Issue moves on to Diocese Review Board
By Valerie Cury
According to local authorities, Rev. Ronald S. Escalante, pastor at Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Purcellville, has been cleared of all alleged boundary violations.
On Dec.14, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office put out this statement: “On November 21, 2018, the LCSO was contacted by the Catholic Diocese of Arlington regarding potential inappropriate contact by a member of their clergy in Purcellville. The investigation has concluded and there are no criminal charges.”
The Diocese of Arlington has placed Escalante on administrative leave pending their review.
According to a source wishing not to be named, “These charges came about from a disgruntled employee, when staff members brought to Escalante’s attention workplace irregularities, and disagreements over parish policy.”
Said Robert Holzbach, who is active in the Knights of Columbus at St. Francis DeSales, “I always stand in line after church to say a personal hello to Father Escalante. My grandchildren cannot wait to hug Father at the end of mass, and they always wait in the long line.”
“We always wait in line to greet Father after mass,” said Kim Hall. “We are recent converts to Catholicism under Father Escalante, and my teens adore him.”
The source went on to say that the same employee approached numerous people, and attempted to persuade them to allege that Father Escalante hugged them inappropriately in the line after church, or looked at them in an inappropriate manner.
As of press time, no date has been set for when Escalante will go before the Diocesan Review Board. A group of parishioners have started a fund for Escalante at www.opusbono.org, a nonprofit for priests. Donations must be earmarked for Father Escalante, who is responsible for all his legal fees. As of press time, the Diocese of Arlington has not responded to requests for a statement.