Woke up today to a horrible headline "Notre Dame professor accused of sex abuse kills self." I don't know the man involved, Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, nor had I ever heard of him (or about the backstory), but the details reported are heartbreaking.
Elizondo was a gregarious and educated priest. A public figure who'd influenced academic disciplines, written prodigiously, and championed many a worthy cause. He was named in a lawsuit against another priest that was filed by a man in San Antonio, who alleged that Fr. Elizondo abused him when he sought counsel regarding the abusive actions of this other priest.
It is not for me to judge -- it is not for any of us to judge -- whether Fr. Elizondo was guilty or innocent. This is something I've learned the hard way, being challenged by friends to critically reflect on my intuitions and stereotypes when faced with public allegations of misconduct. Some else, though, struck me about this situation.
The life of a man or woman accused of sexual abuse is hell. Whether innocent or guilty, this kind of accusation spawns a life of its own, draws adherents, and can alienate him or her from her local community regardless of the outcome of an investigation. I was reminded by this story of a movie that I watched recently called The Hunt (trailer below). It's a foreign film in which a preschool teacher is falsely accused of sexually abusing one of his female students. His life is literally ruined (even after he is acquitted).
I'm was struck, too, though, by something else about this story. By failing to handle credible accusations of abuse in the past, and by transferring known pedophiles from parish to parish, leadership in the Church -- and the institution more generally -- actually victimizes her own priests. Priests who have committed no wrong but are accused of sexual abuse in today's world are automatically assumed guilty. By proving herself unreliable with respect to properly handing such scenarios, we, Catholics, have victimized thousands of children, vulnerable adults, and indeed some of our own clergy. Yes, this problem is not as large (and consequently not as serious) as other aspects of this crisis, but it is real. And my heart goes out to the falsely accused.
God only knows why Father Elizondo took his own life, but he was clearly in intolerable pain. I pray that his name has not just been added to those that we have allowed to be ruined.