The benefit of the doubt

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Last week I spent a lot of time thinking about the sex abuse accusation leveled against Ascension's Monsignor John Fitzgerald, the iconic pastor of my childhood. Decades later, I learn that the man I respected may have had a darker side. 

We don't have hard-and-fast proof that he committed a sexual assault that left a 17-year-old girl traumatized, and we don't have his side of the story because he died in November of 1984. 

What we do have is a compelling account by Gail Peloquin Howard, who says she was the victim of that assault. Read it for yourself in the LifeLines section, starting on page 29.

When I first heard about the accusation, I hoped it wasn't true – and if it were true, that it was an isolated incident, perhaps exaggerated. Then I read Howard's account and, in spite of my misgivings, I found it plausible.

I've been a journalist for 30 years and though I've been fooled before, I have some experience with "B.S. detection." I look for "red flags" when people tell their stories. I reserve my "willing suspension of disbelief" for films and theater, and even then they have to earn it.

Gail Howard earned it. She is a convincing, articulate spokesperson for victims of sex abuse – and not in that slick, polished style where you feel you're being "worked." 

Neither her account nor the accompanying interview struck me as suspiciously exaggerated. She didn't "oversell" it. As a friend of mine likes to say, "It had the ring of truth."

Which is not the same as proof, of course. Such incidents are almost impossible to "prove." They happen in private between someone in a position of power and credibility and someone who is powerless. That's why many victims never have the nerve to come forward. Who would believe them?

Well, after many years, Gail Howard has come forward, and I find her account believable. That's just my opinion, and you're entitled to yours, but I'm inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt – partly because we have seldom given victims that benefit over many decades.

I don't see a compelling motive for her to fabricate something like this. The Archdiocese – which reportedly also found her story credible – paid only for her therapy, not a giant cash settlement. She doesn't come across as some disgruntled Catholic with a vendetta against the Church, Ascension parish, or Msgr. Fitzgerald. 

And if it's true that Fitzgerald paid for her first year of therapy, that's pretty close to an admission of responsibility – as close to "proof" as we're likely to get unless other victims come forward with equally credible accounts.

We all hunger and thirst for justice. It's practically an obsession in this society. But that turns some of us into prosecutors and some of us into public defenders. In this case, a few readers rushed to judgment, assuming Fitzgerald was a sexual predator, that whatever good he might have done shouldn't even be mentioned. Others say the good he did speaks to a man who could never do something so heinous.

But we don't learn anything about the human soul when it's reduced to either/or. John Fitzgerald was a complicated person. We all are. We know he did a lot of good (particularly during the fair housing era as Oak Park began the process of racial integration in the 1960s). Now we hear he may also have done a lot of bad. How do we reconcile that paradox?

Psychologists tell us we all have a dark side. Jungian psychology calls it the "shadow," where we "repress" the side of our psyche we can't accept. For the Catholic clergy, that would be, first and foremost, their sexuality. Those who claim to have no dark side, by definition, have the largest shadow of all because denial is an essential component of their repression. Those in positions of unaccountable authority, meanwhile (especially true in the old Catholic Church), are far more likely to abuse their power (and those over whom they hold it).

Msgr. Fitzgerald, then, may well have been a man who struggled unsuccessfully with his institution's mandate to remain celibate, who was morally compromised by a system in which priests (especially pastors) had too much power and where secrecy and denial made abuse of that power possible.

Fitzgerald, and others like him, functioned in a system that is capable of bringing out their very best – and also their very worst. It is an unhealthy clerical culture that needs to change.

But the system's flaws do not absolve him of personal responsibility if he committed this awful act. 

A lot of people, and I seem to be one of them, are more concerned about the (potentially) wrongly accused than the wrongfully treated. Statistically speaking, the number of wrongfully accused is probably very small. Yet our impulse is to give them the benefit of the doubt. The odds instead are stacked against the accuser.

This has been a difficult column for me to write. It's not easy to condemn the actions of someone I always respected. But sometimes the lack of "proof" allows us to hide behind our "even-handedness." And our very skepticism is hurtful to those who are telling the truth – who were physically overpowered and experienced terrifying vulnerability.  

Gail Howard spent decades trying to work through a traumatic event that she says undermined her entire world view and changed the course of her life. Thanks to her account, I have a clearer sense of what it means to feel violated.

Sometimes you have to take a side. In this case, I'm giving Gail the benefit of the doubt.

I hope that allowing her to tell her story publicly will help her heal – and perhaps lead to a healthier Catholic Church.


Reader Comments

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John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: August 20th, 2014 11:08 AM

There are times that the quality of the words can hide underlying truths. In Ken Trainor's article "the benefit of the doubt" is one. Ken wrote, "We all hunger and thirst for justice. It's practically an obsession in this society." Thirst for Justice? We do not read a newspapers to seek justice. We read to find truth. There is a difference. Eloquently, Ken wonders how to reconcile the paradox of the Msgr. Fitzgerald's alleged sexual depravity and his civic involvement in fair housing. The two can't be reconciled because one is in the record ?" civic involvement, and the other, sexual abuse of a minor is in the darkest of the Catholic Church's catacombs. The church's vow of silence ensured that Fitzgerald's sins would never see the light of day. Gail Howard has given us a clear path to truth. Justice is not always available.

In Glen Ellyn formerly from OP  

Posted: August 20th, 2014 8:49 AM

I agree with Friar Tuck, about this well written thought stream of an article. Whereas I like to believe people with perhaps some caution and Ken describes his difficulty and eventual conclusion of believing someone, at least he realized publicly that he's got human faith issues. Unless, of course, he's just baiting again like he apparently did with his previous arrogant article of wholesale Republican bashing. I hope this isn't just a 1-in-a-year stretch of human "generous" understanding.

Friar Tuck from OP  

Posted: August 20th, 2014 8:18 AM

About once per year, Ken writes a column in which I find myself in agreement. You've thoughtfullly articulated the feelings of many Catholics such as myself...It's hard to assume guilt, but in this case that's exactly my feeling regarding the monsignor. Hopefully coming forward will help Gail find peace and comfort.

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