The Rev. David L. Deibel, J.D., J.C.L. is a respected and deeply committed Catholic priest with training and expertise in both civil and canon law. As such, he has proven to be a great asset to the U.S. Catholic Church throughout the last two decades of scandal and cultural upheaval.
Many Catholic priests who are accused of wrongdoing have found themselves without the benefit of solid canonical advice and advocacy to their own detriment and the detriment of the entire Church. Some canon lawyers with whom I have spoken are reticent to advocate for priests accused in decades-old sexual abuse claims because they say some U.S. bishops have themselves discarded observance of many of the tenets of canon law that provide for due process for priests accused. This has been especially so since the enactment of the Dallas Charter adopted by the United States Conference of Bishops in 2002.
The Charter and its much nuanced "zero tolerance" policy came as a result of the bishops' invitation to SNAP members to address the conference. It was, in effect, the sole voice the bishops heard as they embraced what many now believe to be a panic-driven policy that summarily discards the rights of priests and inflicts great harm on the relationship of trust between priests and their bishops.
For the moment, however, the American Catholic church has to live with this policy. Let me be clear here that the concerns I raise for both its efficacy and its fairness are mine and not Father David Deibel's. But he is left with some of its wreckage, and a part of that has been his unqualified and courageous canonical defense of a Catholic priest who I and many others have determined was falsely accused. For 18 years, Father Deibel has helped to preserve this man's rights under Church law when far too many in our Church were prepared to discard those rights.
A number of prominent writers have drawn that same conclusion, not least among them Dorothy Rabinowitz, the Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist for The Wall Street Journal who authored "A Priest's Story" in 2005. This gripping two-part series blew open the doors of judicial and prosecutorial tyranny that resulted in the 1994 witch hunt trial and conviction of Father Gordon MacRae. In that series, Dorothy Rabinowitz commended Father David Deibel, the sole Catholic official to tell the truth when the rest of the Church and court system was willing to settle for "a negotiated lie" in their condemnation of a priest, but with no evidence or corroboration whatsoever.
This is why the late Father Richard John Neuhaus referred to the MacRae case as reflecting "a Church and a justice system that seem indifferent to justice." The problem for nearly everyone involved in that debacle of a trial is that Father MacRae did not just go quietly into the night. He has been writing, and what he writes has captured the attention of fair-minded Catholics everywhere, and others willing to hear another side of the sordid story of sex abuse and unquestioned monetary settlements that have been its driving force in more recent decades. In "A Voice in the Wilderness," an article for Catholic Exchange earlier this year, I wrote of These Stone Walls:
"Sitting in his cell on an empty plastic bucket in front of an old Smith-Corona typewriter, Father MacRae has produced some remarkable writing about the scandal of the last decade, about the church in Western culture, about fidelity, false witness, and prison itself...The amazing result is These Stone Walls, an eye-catching, conscience-grabbing blog that is both riveting and spiritually uplifting. This blog's fidelity to the Church, and to the truth, has been deemed by many to be the finest example of priestly witness the last decade of scandal has produced."
If that is the truth - and I believe it is - then Father David Deibel's advocacy for Father Gordon MacRae, and his recent advocacy for Father Frank Pavone and Priests for Life is the second finest example of priestly witness the last decade of scandal has produced. It takes great courage to stand up for the truth, but even greater courage to stand up to an institution grown too complacent about compromising truth and justice. I shudder to think of the fate of these two priests without the canonical advocacy of Father Deibel in the current climate.
The Wall Street Journal commends Father David Deibel for the courage of his advocacy. So does The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and The National Center for Reason and Justice. So do the many thousands of readers drawn to These Stone Walls and Priests for Life on a daily basis.
The Church owes a great debt of respect and admiration for the work of Father David Deibel, an advocate for Father Frank Pavone and Father Gordon MacRae, and for Church law itself. There is a far more expert opinion on the matter of this dauntless pursuit of truth and justice, and I defer to it.
Ryan A. MacDonald is a Spero columnist who also writes at his blog A Ram in a Thicket.