Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Bad priests, bad cops

Creator: Octavio Duran | Credit: CNS photo/Octavio Duran

As we all know, there are some who are called in a special way to protect and to serve. Their task is to lead, by word and example, others to a place of safety, and to protect against forces of evil. They are entrusted a great deal of power and responsibility, which if they misuse, can cause tremendous harm. Accordingly, we expect these individuals to be carefully chosen and vetted, and given extensive training, and subject to careful oversight.

Even so, sometimes these individuals fail in their duties to protect and to serve; what is appalling is when those who have responsibility for overseeing them, and enforcing upright conduct, likewise fail by looking the other way or slapping them on the wrist, or shifting the wrongdoers around.

All that said, when people point out these things, there can be a great deal of defensiveness: how dare you attack these self-sacrificing people who put their lives on the line for others? People don't appreciate how difficult their task is; they should just be grateful, rather than slander the whole group because of the wrong actions of a few.

Did you think I was talking about the situation with our police in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis? Actually, this was kind of a trick: I was describing the misconduct of priests, and the inaction of bishops, but of course, I might just as easily have been talking about misconduct of police officers. It occurred to me this morning that there are lot of parallels.

Both police officers and priests:

- are supposed to be the good guys.
- are given significant power and authority to influence the lives of others.
- deal with people in very difficult situations and see others at their worst.
- often work very hard and long hours and don't always feel appreciated.
- are misunderstood and treated with great disrespect by many, sometimes even feared.
- face a lot of stress in their chosen profession, and sometimes deal with that stress in poor ways, whether isolation, alcohol or other addictions.
- should be given extensive training; sometimes that training is lacking.
- among themselves emphasize a sense of brotherhood that can turn clubby and arrogant.
- sometimes make excuses for each other and cover for each other because most people just don't understand what it's like.
- get shifted around by supervisors when they do wrong and -- with their supervisors -- aren't always held accountable.

I can't know for sure, of course, but I think it's most likely that the rotten apples don't start out rotten. Either they start with small compromises that are followed by more and more; or they get cynical; or they get drawn into someone else's corruption; or they rationalize and minimize their immoral behaviors, trying and failing to contain them.

When we are talking about priests who preyed on children or vulnerable adults, what appalled me as a priest was the failure of bishops to act decisively. It has been called "the priest scandal," but in fairness, it might easily and justly be called "the bishop scandal." To this day, the accountability that was applied to priests has not yet been applied to bishops. A priest can and will be removed immediately upon only an accusation, and he may never get his good name back, even if that accusation never goes to court, and is never really substantiated. A priest operates under a guilty-till-proven-innocent standard. We're told that's necessary for the good of all. But I must point out, this standard is not applied to bishops. But because pressure really built up after the exposure of the misdeeds of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, bishops are now subject to some measure of accountability, although it doesn't work the same as how it works for priests.

Now let's talk about police officers. When they misuse their power and authority, they are subject to investigation, and I can only imagine how that can be. Sometimes they are removed, sometimes not. Sometimes they are indicted, sometimes not. They are not often convicted. One reason why is that the courts, over the decades, have developed a legal doctrine of "qualified immunity," which -- as a non-lawyer, I will describe this way: people who act in their capacity as public officials or law enforcement, enjoy some measure of immunity from legal consequences when things go wrong. No doubt there are good reasons for this, but it should also be obvious that if it goes wrong, or is misapplied, then wrong-doers are going to get away with murder. This is exactly what people have been talking about in recent years with cases of police officers implicated in suspicious deaths of people in their custody. So often the issue focused on is race; and while there's no doubt race plays a role, the issue of qualified immunity is neglected.

Another similarity is that a lot of us want very much to believe priests and police officers are good guys, and in the case of juries where police officers are on trial, I can only imagine the difficulty they are in. After all, the law is: innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet when police are enforcing the law -- usually against bad people -- there must be all kinds of ways to entertain reasonable doubt. And for a long time, this is how it was for priests, with the "jury" made up of parents, parishioners and public officials. Children would bravely report that a priest had done wrong to them, and they weren't believed. Even by their own parents; and even judges and law enforcement waved away the accusations. It wasn't just bishops who looked the other way. But finally the stench became too great and now priests enjoy no immunity at all.

One huge difference between priests and police officers? The latter have powerful unions. The difference between the higher-ups in charge of supervising police, and those who oversee priests? Bishops don't have the benefit of "civil service" protections; and they don't collect taxes.

The death of George Floyd, under the knee of a police officer, has sparked days of riots and looting, in the name of "protest"; even as others genuinely are trying to protest, and protest they must. There is a need for reform. By all means, let's say again how terrible racism is (and it is), and do what we can to eradicate it. But maybe it is time to review the laws and protections that make holding people accountable harder? Maybe it's time to increase the accountability for those higher up the food chain? Some of these are political questions, of course; meaning, that voters must be prepared to hold elected officials accountable. That's all of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent look at the current situation, both priestly and secular policing.
From another perspective, just tonight on local news we heard from a law enforcement official that in this state, more training time is required to become a licensed barber than a police officer. And there is no class time for communication and social skills.