Our View: Never forget the presumption of innocence

On Friday, our Nation/World page carried a headline that ran counter to many others we have seen lately: “Ex-Harrisburg bishop cleared of abuse claim.”

The story about unfounded accusations against Kevin C. Rhoades, now bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., should give us all pause.

As the Associated Press reported, the cousin of a now-dead former jail inmate whom Rhoades counseled while serving as a priest in the 1990s contacted authorities with concerns about Rhoades.

Initial reports in early September created a firestorm in the Harrisburg-area media market, which is crowded and competitive.

“The report alleged that they perceived the relationship as odd,” Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo told media outlet PennLive on Sept. 6, when news of the allegation and subsequent investigation first broke. “But they did not witness any inappropriate conduct.”

In a story published by the York Daily Record the same day, Chardo was quoted as saying: “The report we received did not include an allegation of a crime. … We’re following up to make sure that there is no allegation of a crime by any person.”

Seven days later, Chardo announced that the investigation was complete, and that it found Rhoades never engaged in a criminal or otherwise improper relationship with the man.

Chardo also had some sharp words about initial media reports, calling it “a case of a public airing of mere speculation of impropriety with no foundation.”

Media outlets, including this one, report daily on allegations of wrongdoing by people from all classes of society. Usually, though not always, they are tied to criminal charges filed by law enforcement agencies.

Sometimes, however, the fact that someone is under investigation is news in itself. We can say with confidence that most media outlets would report a confirmed investigation by law enforcement of alleged sexual crimes against a member of the clergy, especially one who has risen to the rank of bishop.

Still, we hear what Chardo is saying. He made it clear at the outset that no charges had been filed and no allegation of an actual crime had been made.

Further complicating matters, some of those early stories suggested that the alleged misconduct may have been of a sexual nature, even as no formal confirmation of such allegations had been made.

That is disappointing in the extreme.

Chardo called it “a case of a public airing of mere speculation of impropriety with no foundation,” according to the AP.

“In this case, the leaking of what turned out to be an unfounded report did unnecessary harm,” the DA continued. “This has done a disservice to actual victims of sexual abuse. It has also caused significant and unnecessary harm to Bishop Rhoades.”

We strongly believe in the right of the American press to do its job: To report the news, to keep the public informed and to hold our leaders — civil and religious — accountable for their actions.

We also strongly believe that media outlets have an obligation to proceed with caution and sober judgment where the reputations of innocent people are concerned.

We stand with our fellow journalists in arguing that the case was worth reporting on, even before there were any charges.

We want to make it clear, however, that all American journalists have a responsibility to reinforce for readers that those accused of crimes in this country are entitled to the presumption of innocence before the law, until they admit guilt or are convicted.

— Times Leader