The pelican papers

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Understanding cops and clergy

Posted by Ron George on June 1, 2011

The Jay reports calls for an end to secrecy, denial and blaming the victim (artist unknown)

Critics have called it a whitewash, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy can only have breathed a sigh of relief at the recently-released report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, by a team of social-science researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Critics hated the report’s conclusion that, to paraphrase, “the culture made them do it,” referring to those purportedly awful, sexually-permissive decades of the 1960s and 1970s; U.S. bishops, generally,were let off the hook for the denial, secrecy and scapegoating that perpetuated this historic problem in the first place. Some bishops, the report said, abetted child molesters, but statistics show that the problem finally has been tamped down by the church’s institutional response. Time will tell.

The news media, of course, took a beating for a lack of perspective in reporting this story. What else is new? Not once did the report even hint that, without vigorous investigative news reporting, this story still would be covered up, and the Catholic Church still would be denying that it was much of a problem at all. As for the victims? Let them eat cake. Were there news-media excesses? Of course. Were there reporting errors? Yes, as always. The news media are as imperfect as any other human institution, including the Catholic Church. Are we better off without news coverage of these crimes? Absolutely not, and the Catholic Church’s consistent efforts to keep these stories out of public view compounded efforts, again and again, to bring relief to those who suffered most – Catholics, for God’s sake, who were sexually abused as children by priests.

I’ve been left with the impression, though, that most critics didn’t read the 152-page report itself but only the executive summary and, perhaps, the last chapter of conclusions. Generally, I agree with the take that the report is little more than scholarly window-dressing funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I do wonder why reputable scholars would let themselves be used this way, but it’s probably neither the first nor last time research findings will align with a funder’s point of view. I don’t doubt that many, perhaps most, Catholic bishops have been responsive in this crisis – and it was a true crisis, despite the Jay report’s repeated insistence that it was created by news media.

I appreciate this report, however, for its comparative analysis of the church’s institutional response to clergy sexual abuse of children with that of police-department response to allegations of brutality. I hope Catholic bishops have read, marked, learned and inwardly digested this section of the Jay report: It is a telling critical analogy for how the church functions and how it might be reformed by making it more accountable to its people.

Cardinal Sweeping, by Paul Lachine

Cops and Catholic clergy are a lot alike. They are bands of brothers (mostly) within authoritarian institutions that stand against wrongdoing by evildoers. They are more loyal to each other than either the institution itself or the outside world, which doesn’t understand the travails of their difficult vocations. They are specially trained in the canons of their professions, and they are expert in the use of the tools of their trade. They spend much of their working lives alone in difficult or even hostile environments. They deal in matters of life and death. The analogy is not farfetched and the Jay report’s lead investigator, Karen J. Terry, has written about it elsewhere; only here, it’s not buried in an academic journal.

For about 20 years, I worked for newspapers in various capacities. Like most news writers, I covered lots of crime and I knew lots of police officers, most of them good but some bad. I’ve written of police heroism as well as police depravity. I’ve been accused of sensationalism for covering police brutality and favoritism for covering cops at their best. I’ve also covered the Catholic church, from the height of its holiness to the depths of its singular arrogance and hypocrisy. I’ve been moved by seeming miracles before my eyes, and I’ve been sickened by clergy misconduct and the church’s unstinting resistance to public disclosure of its priests’ criminal acts. It may sound as though I’ve “seen it all,” but I haven’t, not by a long shot. I really wasn’t much of a journalist, but it doesn’t take much of a journalist to perceive the flawed underbelly of institutions – the police, the church – that most people want to see as incorrupt and incorruptible.

When police departments are confronted with allegations that one of their own has brutalized a suspect, the immediate response is to deny the abuse and blame the victim. The suspect was resisting arrest, we’re told; and anyway, he’s a scumbag, a lowlife a criminal. The implication is that he deserved what he got, and in any case, he’s lying. Our cops don’t beat people. Perps always cry brutality when they’re caught red-handed. Then falls the cloak of secrecy and silence, the Blue Code, or whatever they’re calling it nowadays. Cops have each other’s back, and that cultural value rises to the very top echelons, because all chiefs are cops, too. They understand. The police officers’ motto, “Protect and serve” comes into play forcefully when a fellow officer is accused of crime (and it is a crime to beat a suspect): Thou shalt protect and serve thy fellow officers without question and without fail.

Police Brutality (artist unknown

The Jay researchers point out that the problem is not just rogue cops, “bad apples,” but the institutional structure itself, the nature of its existence and the cultural assumptions of its members. Simply put, police departments are ingrown and largely unaccountable, except when a third party calls them to account. Sometimes, though seldom, it’s a district attorney or a district judge; less likely, it may be a municipal official – a mayor or city councilman. The whole system, however, is skewed in favor of the police, who are the linchpins of law and order in the streets, the murky, vulnerable foundation, as it were, of an ordered society. At least, that’s the theory, and every constituency above street level resists making cops accountable for bad behavior. Consequently, police misconduct must be especially egregious to be prosecuted. No one but no one wants to be seen on the wrong side of the battle between good and evil.

The church, too, is ingrown and largely unaccountable to the outside world. This is especially true of the Catholic Church. The Jay report points out that bishops worldwide accountable only to the Pope are virtually autonomous within their dioceses for the discipline of clergy. While most bishops may have been responsive and responsible with regard to clergy sexual abuse of minors, some acted more like provincial  police chiefs when confronted with clergy crimes: They denied the abuse, blamed the victims and then took the whole matter underground. Priests were transferred – in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, one accused priest was spirited away to Spain by night just ahead of the district attorney – victims threatened and silenced, and the code of omerta put in play – nobody say nuttin’ to nobody no how. The inevitable conclusion is that hierarchical, authoritarian institutions, by their very nature, can not be trusted to do the right thing when denial and secrecy accomplish the overriding institutional goals of self-preservation and protecting a cadre of devoted insiders. The implication, too, is inescapable: Reform that fails to make the Catholic Church more accountable, less hierarchical and less authoritarian also will fail, ultimately, to prevent clergy sexual abuse.

There are no recommendations in the Jay report for making the Catholic Church less hierarchical and authoritarian. It calls for the hierarchy to be more transparent (less secrecy), more responsive (less denial) and more concerned for victims of clergy sexual abuse (less blaming the victim). Absent is any hint that diocesan bishops’ absolute power and what might be called clergy culture – the structural basis for the church’s failure in this crisis – ought to be remodeled. The whole apparatus screams for a watchdog, something comparable to so-called blue-ribbon commissions embraced by the Jay authors to monitor police conduct and respond to misconduct. Such a watchdog might be composed of laity, experts in law, criminology, psychology as well as representatives of the laity in general, Catholics with a third-party interest in ensuring that this problem – and it is not going away – will never again be swept under the rug by bishops protecting their own.


One Response to “Understanding cops and clergy”

  1. Fred Capps said

    Fine job as usual, Ron. The scholarly cover-up of the Roman Authoritarian Sex Cover-up and (other)Lies (RASCAL)is reminiscent of the tactic used by the Veteran’s Administration to refuse benefits caused by Alcoholism in the 1980’s and the Blue Ribbon Panel that determined that violence against women on TV did not promote violence against women in the 1970’s.

    Network Television was exonerated reports by scholars were to determined by the panel to be too arcane or too lengthy for a determination to be made. In the case of the VA their determination of cause was that “the experts are divided.” The only “expert” who wrote against the institutional condoning of alcohol abuse in the military was Henry Fingarette who wrote a book “The Myth of Alcoholism.” Although the author supposedly held a PhD, his work was so sloppy, any college freshman could easily refute his unfounded and ill-researched conclusions. Nonetheless, it saved the VA countless millions of dollars to decline responsibility.

    I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun.

    Peace, F

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