CommunityFDL Main Blog

The DOJ Report on Ferguson, US Catholic Bishops, and the Failure of Very Sternly Worded Letters

I’ve pored over the report from the DOJ about Ferguson, and read and re-read Eric Holder’s remarks upon releasing it. They are powerful documents, filled with page after page of discriminatory and racist behavior, with story after story of specific episodes of documented unnecessary use of force. They paint an ugly picture, and a sadly familiar one to those who have lived in Ferguson, North St. Louis, and North St. Louis County, especially people of color or people who are poor.

It was also familiar to me because it reminded me of the way in which prosecutors handled allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. And not in a good way.

The DOJ wrote the city of Ferguson a Very Sternly Worded Letter, and will likely enter into agreements promising change. But if that’s where things end, I fear that nothing will change. Because that’s what’s happened before. Just look at the Catholic church.

In September 2003, a Philadelphia grand jury issued a scathing report, detailing abuse by Catholic priests and an official cover-up of those actions. They could not file charges, however, as the statute of limitations had expired. The Archdiocese promised reforms, the state legislature made changes to strengthen the laws, and people looked forward, not back. Until, that is, it became obvious that nothing substantive had changed.

In 2012, Monsignor William Lynn — the Secretary for the Clergy responsible for placing clergy in parishes — was found guilty of child endangerment, because he consented to move a known pedophile from one parish to another, where that priest molested yet another child. The grand jury declined to indict Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua because of his poor health (the wisdom of which was borne out by the death of the Cardinal as the proceedings unfolded). They were clear in their report, however, that they believed the cardinal was as guilty as his subordinate.

Closer to home, in 2008 the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph Missouri entered into a $10 million settlement with 47 people who were abused (or family members of those abused) by Catholic priests. The settlement included promises of reforms by the diocese, but those promises were proven false in 2011 when KC Bishop Robert Finn was indicted for failing to report to the police a priest they knew to be in possession of child pornography that he had created. Finn knew about it, because the diocese was in possession of the priest’s computer that contained his photographs, and the priest admitted to them that he had a problem. In February 2012, Finn was convicted, earning the distinction of being the first US bishop to have been held accountable in court.

The plaintiffs in the 2008 settlement were understandably livid, as Finn’s conviction proved that the promises made to them were not being lived up to. Additional lawsuits brought to light additional facts proving this, and the 2008 plaintiffs went back to the legal system for justice. Last July, an arbitrator overseeing the 2008 settlement agreed, as described by the KC Star:

In his highly critical order, Hanover found that the diocese had breached five of the terms of the 2008 agreement. He noted that the plaintiffs could have sought to declare the contract void and collect what likely would have been “a far larger award.” “They have instead opted to seek damages for these noted breaches and to maintain the contract in force for the protection of children in the future,” Hanover wrote. “I here honor their preference and join in their hope that I am dead wrong in my opinion that this Diocese as presently constituted will not mend its ways.”

When the diocese challenged the award, the judge was having none of it:

Calling the award a “scathing indictment of the defendant,” Jackson County Circuit Judge Bryan Round said in his ruling that “there can be no doubt that the diocese, through its leadership and higher-level personnel, failed in numerous respects to abide by the terms” of the 2008 agreement. Those terms included immediately reporting any abuse or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities — something the diocese failed to do in the child pornography case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan in 2010.

Sternly Worded Letters are necessary, but not sufficient. Not even close.

Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who has been fighting the hierarchy since the 1980s to address the child abuse issue head on, understands the dynamics of power within unaccountable systems very, very well. What Doyle said about the hierarchy of the Catholic church can very easily be applied to the police departments of far too many cities, by changing just a few words . . .

There will continue to be abuse by the clergy police as long as the ecclesiastical law enforcement environment that allowed it to flourish continues as a closed, hierarchical system enshrouded in secrecy and sustained by the power of fear.  As sexual abuse unnecessary use of force cases surface in country after country city after city the patterns of cover-up, collusion and denial are the same.  This is not proof of an international a country-wide conspiracy or a secret order sent to all bishops police chiefs as some would have it, but of something more radical.  The world nation-wide outrage, the seemingly countless lawsuits and the close examination by various academics are directed at the status quo in three areas: the essential role of the clerical law enforcement sub-culture, hierarchical governance and the efficacy of the theological authoritarian dogmas that support them.  The most realistic response is also the most fearful to the hierarchy and to many clergy and laity police officers and civilians as well: a thorough, fearless examination of the heretofore untouchable system of power and control and the closed, secretive and often privileged world at the heart of the institutional church law enforcement community.  There is really only one vital question:  why is this system and the men people who sustain it more important than the emotional, physical and spiritual welfare of a single, innocent child citizen?

Sternly Worded Letters won’t cut it, especially when the Sternly Worded Letters go out of their way to avoid naming individuals who committed illegal acts. When the DOJ wrote them to the banks in the wake of the financial crisis, leveling fines against them for their actions but declining to prosecute any individuals, Jamie Dimon was given an 8 figure bonus by his board of directors for his fine work. When prosecutors wrote them to Catholic bishops in the wake of the child abuse coverups, the abuse continued.

Unless and until police officers are held accountable — not only those on the streets but even more so those who supervise them — all the Very Sternly Worded Letters in the world will make no difference.


 h/t to DOJ for the official portrait of Eric Holder, Sternly Worded Letter Writer.

Previous post

The “Debt Crisis” According to Bruce Bartlett: Fiat Sovereignty

Next post

Police Officer Slain in North Philly Gamestop Shootout



I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.