Amid media reports on scores of innocent men wrongly imprisoned, a California lawyer’s study shows that up to half the claims against Catholic priests are false.

“IF YOU LET ‘EM GET AWAY WITH THIS, YOU GIVE ‘EM THE ETERNAL RIGHT TO DO THE SAME DAMN THING TO ANY ONE OF YOU!”

That memorable line was delivered with blunt force by actor Joe Don Baker portraying the famous anti-corruption sheriff, Buford Pusser, in the 1973 film, “Walking Tall.” Buford stood shirtless before a packed courthouse, the lacerations of his brutal scourging by local thugs still glistening with blood, while a corrupted judge pounded his gavel charging Buford with contempt. The entire courtroom, and the viewing audience, also gasped with contempt, but their contempt was not for Buford Pusser.

A part of me was hoping that Cornelius Dupree, Jr. would shout something similar to Buford Pusser’s declaration early this month as he stood before cameras in front of a Dallas courthouse with Innocence Project founder, Attorney Barry Scheck. Cornelius Dupree is now free, to the extent a man can be free after 31 years in prison for a sex crime he had nothing to do with. During those 31 years he passed up two opportunities for parole because they required that he admit to being a sex offender. Cornelius Dupree served more time for a crime he didn’t commit than any of the 41 wrongfully convicted and exonerated prisoners in Texas alone since 2001.

20-year-old Cornelius Dupree was arrested for the crime in 1979, and sentenced to 75 years in prison. In 2004, he was set to be released on parole until he refused it again because it required that he submit to a sex offender treatment program which in turn required an admission of guilt. The 20-year-old turned 51 in prison before being exonerated and released.

On a national scale, only two other exonerated men spent more time in prison than Cornelius Dupree. Jamie Bain was one of them. I wrote about Jamie in “The Eighth Commandment” last year when he walked out of prison after serving thirty-five years for a rape crime that DNA evidence proved he did not commit. These two men are among hundreds exonerated nationwide after being wrongfully imprisoned for sexual offenses. I wrote of them in “The High Cost of Innocence,” the third of a three-part post, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused” a few months ago.

STUDY SUSPECTS THOUSANDS OF FALSE CONVICTIONS

Truth in Justice” is an educational organization listed under “Related Links” on These Stone Walls. It’s one of several wrongful conviction organizations and websites endorsing or supporting our own efforts on These Stone WallsTruth in Justice formed:

“To educate the public about vulnerabilities in the U.S. criminal justice system that make the criminal conviction of wholly innocent persons possible.”

If you don’t think this is really a problem, spend some time at the vast Truth in Justicewebsite, or at the site of the National Center for Reason and Justice (www.ncrj.org). I think these two sites will convince you. Why should you be concerned about this? Well, Buford Pusser provided THAT answer. I woke up one night in prison muttering his very same words. I think the court I was standing before was the court of public opinion, and it wasn’t my body that was lacerated, but my name and my priesthood and the entire Church.

Truth in Justice published a 2004 report entitled “Study Suspects Thousands of False Convictions.” It examined 328 cases of exoneration including 120 sexual assault exonerations. In 90 percent of those cases, defendants were convicted based on misidentification of witnesses. Many of the wrongful convictions – about 25% of them – involved coerced confessions or “plea deals” because the accused had little or no hope of acquittal, or lacked the resources to fight the claim. This is an important reality. In a post last year, “Pop Stars and Priests: Michael Jackson and the ‘Credible’ Standard,” I quoted a 2003 column in The Wall Street Journal by Deputy Editor Dan Henninger. Commenting on the Michael Jackson case, Dan Henninger wrote:

” … Mr. Jackson, like Kobe Bryant, was able to mount a defense equal to the accusatory powers of the state. Not everyone can do that. If Michael walks, I’ll wonder if any of the many convicted Catholic priests similarly charged were in fact innocent but found guilty because they couldn’t push back against the state’s relentless steam roller.”

Some time spent at “Truth and Justice” or The National Center for Reason and Justice will demonstrate that “relentless steam roller” really does characterize exactly what happens when state prosecutors try a case of sexual abuse or sexual assault. And when the defendant is either a pop star or a Catholic priest, all eyes are on the prize for prosecutors. Just consider my response to Dan Henninger that I reproduced in another post, “The Eye of the Beholder“:

“As a priest without the means to push back in equal measure to Michael Jackson, I must point out some factors you overlooked. Imagine how steeply uphill Michael’s battle would have been if twenty years passed between the alleged crime and the state’s prosecutorial steam roller rumbling into action for a trial.

Imagine the state having to prove nothing while Michael Jackson’s defense tried in vain to prove that something alleged to have happened two decades earlier never happened at all. Then imagine Michael struggling to proclaim his innocence while the institution he served denounced him and his attempts to defend himself, seeking only the path of least resistance to settle with his accusers and rid themselves of liability at the expense of due process.”

Imagine all of this, and you will have captured the scene faced by many similarly accused Catholic priests.”

A MEASURE OF TRUTH

David F. Pierre, Jr. is author of the new book, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church. I profiled the book in my post, “Why Accusers Should Be Named” last October. David Pierre is also host ofwww.TheMediaReport.com and a contributing writer for www.NewsBusters.org, the popular media bias blog of The Media Research Center.

Early this month, David Pierre forwarded a link to an article of his on The Media Reportentitled: “Special Report: Los Angeles Attorney Declares Rampant Fraud; Many Abuse Claims Against Catholic Priests are ‘Entirely False.’” The report was described as a “bombshell” in David Pierre’s article which has also been sent to me by several other TSW readers. I’m glad to see that the article is circulating, and I would like to ask you to circulate it further by passing to others a link to this post.

The report cited in David Pierre’s article was recently submitted to the Los Angeles County Superior Court by Attorney Donald H. Steier who compiled his investigation along with the aid of a retired F.B.I. agent working with him. His stunning conclusion is:

“About ONE-HALF [emphasis his] of the claims made in the clergy cases were either entirely false or so greatly exaggerated that the truth would not have supported a prosecutable claim for childhood sexual abuse.”

The supporting details in the study by Attorney Donald H. Steier are described well in David Pierre’s article. The part that jumped out at me, however, involved the use of polygraphs, and I take the liberty of reproducing it here. Attorney Steier wrote:

“I have had accused priest clients take polygraph examinations performed by very experienced former law enforcement experts, including from L.A.P.D., the Sheriff Department, and F.B.I. In many cases the examinations showed my clients’ denial of wrongdoing was ‘truthful,’ and in those cases I offered in writing to the accuser to undergo a similar polygraph examination at my expense. In every case the accuser refused to have his veracity tested by that investigative tool, which is routinely used by intelligence agencies.”

As I prepared for trial in 1994, trial-by-media was already underway in its condemnation of the accused. Any person who has faced false accusations in a public trial will tell you of the role played by the media in stacking the deck against him. Michael Gallagher, the falsely accused and exonerated Pennsylvania teacher I wrote of in “The Eighth Commandment” described in chilling prose the news media’s impact on his life and family in his comment on that post.

Attorney Steier’s account about the polygraphs really struck a nerve.  In the face of growing pre-trial media condemnation of me in 1994, my defense counsel asked me if I would consider taking polygraph examinations. He believed me, but wanted something concrete that could support my statement of innocence in public view. I readily agreed to take polygraphs, so my attorney arranged for them with a polygraph expert utilized by law enforcement agencies. In “A Measure of Truth,” one of my earliest posts on These Stone Walls, I described in detail the experience of submitting to polygraph examinations before my trial:

“There I was, a 41-year-old Catholic priest strapped to a chair in a dank office surrounded by electronic equipment with sensors on my fingers, probes monitoring my heart rate, respiration and blood pressure while a poker-faced examiner asked me graphic questions about sex. When it was over, he told me we would be repeating the test with ‘re-phrased’ questions in a week’s time, and then again a week after that. ‘Don’t even think about it,’ he said.”

The following week I went through this again, feeling dismal, having no idea of the results. I knew a lot was resting on this, and, like the false accusations themselves, just having someone sit there asking these questions was sheer torment. I paid out $3,000 for the privilege of being grilled about sex while strapped to machines. I knew I was telling the truth, and I was about to suffer dearly for it.

When I arrived for the third polygraph exam, I was told that it would not be necessary, that the first two results were conclusive: I was telling the truth, the examiner said, and he had no doubt of it.

What came next, however, was exactly what David Pierre described in his article about attorney Donald Steier’s “bombshell” report. The prosecutor in my case refused to review the polygraph results, or even to hear them. The contingency lawyers for my accusers refused to acknowledge letters describing that I had undergone polygraph

tests and asking that their clients, in fairness, do the same. Even officials of my diocese refused to respond to letters asking them to review the polygraph results. They simply didn’t want to hear it because I was an accused priest, and the settlement game was already well underway. There was a deal before me, and everyone thought I would just take the deal.

ENTER MARCIA CLARK

The polygraph story wasn’t over. Four years after I was sent to prison, I was contacted out of the blue by representatives of former Los Angeles prosecutor Marcia Clark who were preparing a television production for the FOX Network profiling claims of wrongful conviction. Marcia Clark wanted me to be interviewed in a format that would include a polygraph examination to air on national television. “I understand you have taken several polygraphs in this case, and have passed,” the FOX researcher wrote. My accusers – who had already obtained six-figure settlements – did not respond to suggestions that they, too, agree to polygraphs.

I agreed to this immediately, but state officials refused to allow the polygraph test to be administered in the prison. FOX offered to reimburse the state for moving me anyplace where the interview and polygraph could take place, but to no avail. In the end, an appeal by FOX TV to the governor yielded no hope: “I will not intervene in the decision not to allow media access to inmate Gordon MacRae,” Governor – now U.S. Senator – Jeanne Shaheen wrote to FOX in 1998.

In a confidential memo to my bishop – a memo that ended up being published on-line over objections from my diocese in 2003 – an attorney for my diocese wrote of his relief that the FOX overture was not permitted to go forward.

In a comment on my post, “The Scandal of Catholic Abuse of the Catholic Abuse Scandal” two weeks ago, TSW reader Karin wrote that it made her think of Jack Nicholson’s famous line in the film, “A Few Good Men”: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” Karin assured me, “We CAN handle the truth.” It only has to be told.

It took 31 years for the truth to set Cornelius Dupree free. In the story of accused priests, David F. Pierre and Attorney Donald H. Steier have done justice to the truth of late, and in coming months, God willing, I might have some things to add.

Meanwhile, I am heartened by Karin’s words. You CAN handle the truth, and I believe hearts open to truth as an end in itself recognize it when they see it. And why must you know the whole truth? Well, this post began with the answer to that question. I’ll defer once again to Sheriff Buford Pusser.