Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Father Brett Kavanaugh would be suspended and investigated

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh waits to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the third day of his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — If Brett Kavanaugh were a Catholic priest, how would we now expect the church to deal with him?

Kavanaugh is not just any judge, of course. He’s been nominated to the Supreme Court. Were he a Catholic priest being considered for promotion to bishop, say, or a bishop looking to become cardinal, his promotion would be dead in the water until his name was cleared. He would be suspended from ministry and a professional investigation would be in order.

The procedures that the Catholic Church has had in place since 2002 for dealing with the sexual abuse of minors presume that the accused is an adult. Kavanaugh, on the other hand, is accused of attempting to rape a high school student while he himself was in high school. He denies the charge.

For the moment, let’s presume that the church would apply to a case like Kavanaugh the same procedures that it would apply to a priest accused of sexually assaulting a minor while intoxicated.

With such a public accusation, his bishop would be a fool to simply say he believes his priest and close the case without an investigation, let alone promote him to higher office the following week.

A smart bishop would follow the procedures already in place for handling accusations of child abuse by priests and would first report the accusation to the police. While most jurisdictions will accept a report of an alleged crime that occurred outside of the statute of limitations — particularly when the allegation involves a minor — there is little they can do.

But the bishop would also send the accusation to the diocesan review board, along with any other information he had gathered through a preliminary investigation. The board would examine the accusation to determine whether it was credible or not. Did it have a semblance of truth?

My guess is that the accusation by Christine Blasey Ford would be found sufficiently credible to call for a full investigation and the temporary suspension of the priest. The investigation would attempt to get to the facts of the situation.

President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, speaks before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 4, 2018, to begin his confirmation to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Such an investigation would not be easy since the alleged crime took place decades ago. It would require professional investigators with experience doing similar investigations. It should not be done by the chancery staff, who might have connections to the priest or at least be at risk of rooting for him over his accuser, although some dioceses might attempt that.

The New York Archdiocese wisely hired outside experts earlier this year to investigate then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick when he was accused of abusing a minor decades ago. The accusations were found by the archdiocesan review board to be credible and substantiated.

Such investigations are not easy even for professionals. Although television detectives can solve any crime in the hour allotted, real life is not so simple. Although the hope is that an investigation settles the facts of a case one way or another, sometimes the past is unclear. While criminal courts require that the accused be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a priest can be permanently removed from ministry with less certitude.

The results of the investigation go to the review board, which then makes a recommendation to the bishop. A bishop who ignores the recommendation of his review board would be foolish.

In the past, the bishops were no model for dealing with abuse, but today the church has procedures for dealing with accusations of abuse.

The U.S. Senate should not make the same mistakes the church did. The accusations against Kavanaugh should be investigated before his nomination moves forward.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.


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  • “The accusations against Kavanaugh should be investigated before his nomination moves forward.”

    Thank you for such a clear statement on what needs to happen now. The stories need to be investigated by professionals who have done this kind of investigation in the past. It should not be “investigated” by the Senate, since that is a partisan political body.

    The confirmation vote on Kavanaugh needs to wait until an investigation is completed. If that means no vote for months, why is that a problem? Wait. Lets do this one right.

  • This is an extremely well reasoned piece by Father Reese.

    On the other hand, since the primary goal of President Trump, who brags about grabbing women’s genitals, and Republicans is to Make America White Again, Judge Kavanaugh’s sexual activity is irrelevant, so long as it was with a girl and she was white.

  • I am no fan of Brett Kavanaugh, a man who has already lied under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 2006 confirmation hearing for his spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, according to Russ Feingold, a man whose judgment I trust who sat on that committee. But I’m not sure Fr. Reese’s analogy quite works. For one thing, there was no power differential present in the alleged incident that happened when Kavanaugh and Ford were in high school, unless of course you consider the fact that she was outnumbered two to one. And while attempted rape is attempted rape no matter who does it, Dr. Ford’s accusation does not, in my opinion, rise to the level of the accusations of actual rape that have been leveled against priests preying on young children in their charge.

    About the only analogy I can think of to compare to the clergy abuse scandal is that when charges are made they should be followed through with the appropriate procedures that have been set in place, something that is clearly not happening in the Senate since Republicans like Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley who had no problem inviting the FBI in to do their job when Anita Hill was being questioned now suddenly declare that “the FBI just doesn’t do that sort of thing” more than a quarter century later. That would be like a bishop saying, “we just don’t bother the local authorities when a child says they were raped by a priest.” While that used to happen routinely, now they can’t get away with that anymore. For the current Senate, however, it’s a different story – the reverse, in fact.

  • So Reese is going to equate a teenage boy who may have assaulted a teeneage girl at a party to fully adult males who have taken a vow of celebacy and present themselves as such who rape children?

    Oh boy can Reese be any more transparent in his opinion that Kavanaugh should not be confirmed. Party politics is living large in Reese’s heart and mind.

  • Exactly, Reese is reaching for stars here and disgraces his position and child victims of middleaged priests.

  • “If that means no vote for months, why is that a problem?”

    One-word answer: politics. Two-word answer: the midterms.

  • Fr Reese – what data do you have that would support your “guess” that her claim is creditable?
    In addition, kavanaugh was vetted by the FBI on three separate occasions – no findings related to the alleged incident noted.
    In addition, there are no politics in play when promoting a priest to bishop; nor issues with timing – so to imply this is apples to apples is dishonest.
    In addition, the information of the alleged incident was withheld from the senate and public until the day before the confirmation vote; clearly a political move which discredits the accuser and makes one question the integrity of the senator from California who
    intentionally withheld the information.
    In addition, if the accuser was so concerned about justice, why did she not address this 35 years ago? Or 30? Or 15?
    Finally, why is she unwilling to testify under oath with ridiculous stipulations? Stipulations that are directly opposed to normal legal procedures?
    Yes, let’s investigate ford and her mental state. Let’s investigate her ties to democratic activists. Let’s investigate Feinstein’s handling of this information and her husbands ties to the Chinese government.
    Lots of things to investigate; but not false claims designed to sabotage a Supreme Court nominee.

  • As far as the Catholic stance, it is far more prevalent and occurred at a drastic pace over the course of many years. Now we have ppl automatically assuming Kavanaugh is guilty. After 36 years, can we dig up DNA? Who will admit they were at a underage party and who could remember in detail?
    In her therapist report, she stated 4 guys, then retracted and said the therapist go it wrong. Memories can erode after my years. The details aren’t as clear. Did Mrs. Ford go alone? Why was a 15 yr old there in the first place?
    Also, why did she take polygraph test and hire an attorney in August, when Kavsnaugh’s name was mentioned as a possible replacement for SCOTUS?
    Every bit of this smells worse than the biggest garbage dumps around.
    All you need to do take whatever bit you want and make a b**** story for the next five years. This is why politics is a devil’s advocate for government.

  • The old saying “caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy”, that is where the Republicans draw the line these days. Regardless of what Kavanaugh did as a 17 year old drunk privileged prep school kid he is unfit to serve on the Supreme Court. It is best to wait until late January when the new senate meets and either there is a Democratic majority or the a few Republicans find a new moral compass. to make a decision on a nominee.

  • Father Reese, you and Fr. James Martin, as well as other members of the Society of Jesus, have been accused of many things on these pages and those of many online sites. Specifically, to my great surprise, you’ve been accused of heresy, which sounds like a disqualifying offense. Others have been accused of sexual transgressions against their vows.
    Do you think you should be suspended until the authorities investigate these (rather specific, but currently unsubstantiated) accusations? Or do you think the burden of proof is on your accusers? In the latter case, I think your accusers should first present their evidence, not just accusations, to the authorities before you should be suspended.
    Do your suggestions in this essay apply only to judges? If so, why?

  • Thank you, Father Reese.

    And it has to be said: many of the very same people now calling for a mulligan for Brett Kavanaugh are among those who have been most insistent that the Catholic church needs to do a far better job of protecting minors from clerical sexual abuse.

    As it absolutely does need to do…. But the sauce dished out to the gander of the Catholic abuse crisis has, in all fairness, also to be dished out to the goose of the Brett Kavanaugh investigation. If that sauce has ever had any real important, that is, to many of those doing the dishing….

  • What did he do as a 17 year old that would make him unfit? Please cite your sources.
    Oh, his family had money.
    Got it. Guess you wouldn’t do the same if you had any. You’d send your kid to the dumpy public school.

  • This is exactly what I was pointing to in a comment about another article! If priests are to be held accountable no matter how far back the abuse allegations go a nominee to the Supreme Court should be treated equally.

  • Are the offense against medieval dogma and the offense of sexual exploitation of one of the Church’s children equivalent offenses? Cardinal Burke would probably think so.

    In the case of heresy, the only thing at risk is the RC hierarchy’s theory-world, which may or may not be of real value.

    In the case of a suspected predator priest, at risk is the physical and psychological well-being of the potential next child. That child’s physical and psychological well-being is of great value, though perhaps not to Cardinal Burke.

  • I agree. But according to Fr. Reese, it doesn’t matter. The accusation of a disqualifying offense — which heresy and sexual misconduct would be — is enough to warrant suspension. Good thing we don’t need actual evidence anymore.
    I feel bad for him and all the accused Jesuits, because I thought they were doing God’s work. Turns out they’re all unworthy of God’s service, because someone has accused them. Thank God we found out in time!

  • “Thank God we found out in time.”

    In this day and age, I have been unable to find anything to thank God for. Now there is something. Thank you.

  • If the charges made against the priest had no date, no location, no details and came from a partisan committed to obstruction of a leader she dislikes, and if the priest had an unblemished record of helping countless women and never having any behavior remotely similar to the charge, and if the claimant was backed by a group committed to destroying the priest, and if the priest had been investigated before repeatedly and no such behaviors were identified, I would think the chancery would dismiss the charge as partisan effort to smear a good man.

  • Father Reese does his usual application of high-minded platitudes to realities to which they are inapplicable to wind up sounding eccentric.

    If Brett Kavanaugh were a priest, he would not be a nominee for the Supreme Court.

    There is essentially no connection at all between these hearings, his current position, his potential new position, and being an alter Christus.

    One does hope the Supreme Court does not see itself as Christ’s founded Mater and Magister to a faithful who must listen with the ears of Faith.

  • It a piece that as well reasoned as his usual stuff, which is to say, it is not well reasoned.

    It does play to the faithful at America, National Catholic Reporter, et al.

    What sexual activity?

  • How many times have you actually talked to Raymond Cardinal Burke?

    The fact that you hate him, and the Catholic Church, does seem irrelevant.

  • no date, no location, no details and came from a partisan committed to obstruction of a leader she dislikes

    We’re lucky then that none of your qualifications fit this case at all. We even know the name of the other guy who was in the room.

  • The Democrats do NOT care about justice for either Ford or Kavanaugh in this matter. All they want, overtly, brazenly, right-in-America’s-face, clear-as-TV-camera-glass, is to simply delay everything till the upcoming Mid-Term elections, when they will presumably have enough Dem votes to destroy Kavanaugh REGARDLESS of his actual innocence or guilt.

    Never seen anything like it. So let’s be honest: THAT kind of raw cynical political craziness, is demon-possessed.

  • Laurence Tribe, running dog for the Left, advocate for animal rights, an especially active booster of the Palmer Report, a liberal blog known for peddling conspiracy theories..

    That Laurence Tribe?

  • The Senate would actually need details about the alleged incident before it could investigate. An allegation that an assault occurred some 36 years ago at an unnamed party held at an unnamed location at an unnamed date and time–in the face of categorical denials by Kavanaugh that any such thing ever happened–leaves little, if anything, to investigate. If you don’t think that Brett Kavanaugh’s life hasn’t been thoroughly vetted, top to bottom–high school and all–then you are not aware of the process or the tremendous resources devoted to such matters. The FBI interviewed numerous people, and they were looking for anything that might embarrass the nomination.

  • If you read the writings of Mark Judge, Kavanaugh’s friend, you will have an idea of the culture in which Kavanaugh (and Neil Gorsuch, for that matter) grew up. It’s sick. Then these guys age a bit and decide to atone for being the little jerks they were by whacking you from the biggest Bench in the world. That’s sicker——but you’re probably stuck with it, as are your children. Why? Something about no one wanting to defend Hillary Clinton from Trump’s bully mouth when they should have had enough sense to do it. For Hillary? No, Nation of Ninnies, for everyone else.

  • In Italy, we sometimes find our politician’s bodies in trunks of cars. In case you want something to thank/ask God for.

  • All politicians are lying slime balls. But only some deserve to end up in car trunks. If it is the right one who ends up in a car trunk, thanks be to God.

    Do bishops, a group very like politicians, ever end up in car trunks?

  • I have often reflected on the utility of that particular solution to political disappointment, but I do wonder why it is that people go poking around in the boots of other people’s cars.

  • It’s only “sick” if your pen name is “FriendlyGoat” and you’d vote for a Yellow Dog if it ran on the Democrat ticket.

  • If he is confirmed and if the Democrats take the House (at the moment both are well within the realm of possibility if not likelihood), he would probably be investigated by the House, and if the evidence warrants, impeached by the House, presumably on the grounds of perjury. I think that charge would be very hard to prove if based on normal courtroom standards. Of course, it wouldn’t be a court trial. It would be a political trial.

  • As a point of historical fact, it would be interesting to know if any priest has been suspended for something he may (or may not) have done long before he became a priest.

  • Investigate to only find they lived in the same State at the time of the allegation? You are afraid Justice Kavanaugh will dismantle your Marxist utopian delusion.

  • As soon as I read that she brought up in marital therapy, I though “What in the world could this have to do with marital therapy except some issues around intimacy with men?”

    This morning I read this article

    describing an interview with Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, a cognitive psychologist, a preeminent expert on human memory whose work on the subject in criminal cases has been a crucial key to establishing a stricter standard for “recovered memories” increasing requirements for corroborating evidence in criminal trials.

    (The Daycare hysteria in the ’80s was an example of what goes wrong, as is nearly every domestic relations court in the USA.)

    She is a pro-Choice Democrat, so that card can’t be played.

    She raises most of the issues that came to my mind.

  • “The accusations against Kavanaugh should be investigated before his nomination moves forward.”

    Investigate what, exactly? An alleged event where the only person that claims to remember it can’t identify where or when it happened, can only remember a handful of those that were there, and has had all those she’s named deny remembering anything about it? The police have nowhere to start, any investigation they attempt would be a farce, going through the motions to appease public opinion.

  • An interesting column from Townhall, thank you. Another way to think of it might be Professor Slughorn’s altered memory of a conversation he had with the then-young Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series! I do not mean to make light of any pain on the part of Kavenaugh’s or Ford’s families. However, the elephant in the room is the pro-life vote, which always breeds the “hysteria,” on the left, and an attempt to “show who really has young peoples’ interests at heart.” What is sad is that this will start coming more and more down to teen vs. teen (And their memories when they are up to the age of 50!). What will the “trained experts” do when they are awash in the lawsuits from that?

  • Perhaps you could provide date, location etc. to aid the investigation. Or like the stereotypical leftist, you could create those details out of whole cloth.

  • Unfortunately the trained experts are rarely successfully sued.

    When it became apparent, for example, that custody evaluations had no scientific basis and no validation, and mind mavens began getting sued, states quickly began passing laws against their being sued for evaluations.

    Take a look at the aftermath of the daycare hysteria.

    Zero successful lawsuits despite serial malpractice.

  • I agree with you. I was not really thinking of the “experts” getting sued, but the huge number of people who could start suing each other for the behavior that is glorified for teens on films and TV. What do you think might come of that?

  • Reese ‘s wish for Kavanaugh to be “investigated” approaches the matter from precisely the wrong end. It’s already been made clear that no evidence of the incident exists other than the recollection of the accuser – her reminiscence is the only thing supporting the charge, and therefore it’s the only thing there is to “investigate.” If the FBI seriously wanted to look into the case (which it doesn’t), its “investigation” would have to begin – and end – with probing Ms Ford’s memory.

  • A doctorate in Political science from UV Berkeley, that says it all. One of the most liberal, radical universities in the USA.
    Doctor Reese is politically slanted against Judge Kavanaugh. So naturally his writings would be. He does not or won’t take into account That Ford and her lawyer are both George Soro’s poster girls. And that George Soros set up and funded a multimillion dollar association to defeat Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment. Which is run and headed by Ford’s attorney. The whole thing is a frame up. What other liberal organizations is he associated with? We will leave Doctor Reese to God.

  • You just don’t care about his victims. Black people should know better than to defend a rapist, yet for some reason they do not.