Legal Indictments and Indictments of Other Kinds

When someone is indicted in criminal law, the meaning of the indictment is that a grand jury has found that it is more probable than not that the accused has committed a specific criminal offense.  An indictment is an accusation by the government.  The accused cannot be brought to trial without it.  One ought to take note of an indictment, but one ought also to recognize that different standards of proof govern indictments than criminal trials and that little in the way of evidence is often needed to obtain an indictment.  Lastly, there is generally no opportunity to present exculpatory evidence or make any pre-trial motions in the indictment process.  The indictment is the prosecutor’s instrument alone.  I know that many readers will know this, but I thought it might be useful to clarify the specific and limited quality of a legal indictment since Bishop Finn was indicted under a Missouri statute.  I believe, but am not sure, that the statute is section 210.115.1 of the Missouri Code, which states:

When any . . .  minister . . . has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been or may be subjected to abuse or neglect or observes a child being subjected to conditions or circumstances which would reasonably result in abuse or neglect, that person shall immediately report or cause a report to be made to the division in accordance with the provisions of sections 210.109 to 210.183 . . . .

One of the reasons that I think it important to emphasize the particular and somewhat arcane legal meaning of an indictment is because of columns like this one by Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, who titles her piece, “Bishop Finn-dicted For Protecting Pedophile Priest.”

Professor Butler properly notes the fact of Bishop Finn’s indictment, but then makes some statements which, at least from a legal perspective, are not sound.  She claims, for example, that “the indictment is another warning shot aimed at the enclave of the Vatican.”  The expression of symbolic minatory messages is not the purpose of a legal indictment.  She connects the indictment to “[c]hanges to the liturgy” which she believes “have many up in arms[.]”  Again, liturgical preferences have nothing at all to do with this indictment.  She claims that “Cardinals and Bishops like Philadelphia’s Bishop Chaput can only whine about how terrible the press is, without being accountable for the actions that have caused the press to scrutinize the church so intensely.”  If this is a reference to the indictment of Bishop Finn, I’m afraid it is misplaced.  “Cardinals and Bishops like Philadelphia’s Bishop Chaput” had no legal duty to report child abuse under the Missouri statute.

And Professor Butler concludes with this: “The church does not need another plan; what’s needed is action and more indictments to get the attention of an institution that has sacrificed children to protect its rotten hierarchy. I for one cannot wait for the real purge of tainted clerics to happen.”  Once again, Professor Butler’s excitement for the coming purge and the issuance of “more indictments” has nothing to do with the legal indictment of Bishop Finn.

Obviously Professor Butler is interested in indictments of other kinds — political, social, cultural, religious — but these are not legal indictments, and I think it important to keep the difference clearly in view.  — MOD

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