David Gibson, opinion contribution

Posted on August 12, 2020 at 5:00 a.m.

The Catholic Church has always viewed child abuse as a sin and a scandal. Police abuse is seen as deplorable but acceptable, even heroic, in keeping the peace.

The mantra that is invoked when episodes of police brutality or corruption emerge, as they do with regularity these days, is that it is just "a few bad apples". It is an all too familiar refrain to those of us who have dealt with sexual abuse in the religion for so many years, especially the well-known and well-documented cases of minor abuse by Catholic clergymen.

It is also the wrong way to think about the problem. The Catholic Church is learning this lesson, but too many law enforcement agencies don't. And there is no reason police authorities shouldn't do at least as much as the Catholic Church when it comes to ending abuses, as the two cultures are so similar.

When social scientists looked for analogies to better understand and explain the particular dynamics of the priesthood that could encourage abuse – especially after the 2002 Boston turning point scandal – the best comparison was with law enforcement.

Abuse in the Catholic Church

The Church's "vertical organizational structures" and "rigid levels of command", such as the police force, "can encourage ranks deviant behavior and impede organizational reform," researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice wrote in their 2011 "Causes and Context" of the crisis abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Both police officers and clergy, they said, share a reluctance to report "deviant or criminal behavior, largely out of fear of peer exclusion," and the instinct of administrators is to do so to hide such behavior.

In this study, the researchers found that the Catholic bishops of the United States initially followed the example of many cities in setting up review bodies of how they proliferated in the wake of police corruption and brutality, such as the Rodney King who lived in Los Angeles in struck the US in the 1990s.

However, if the Catholic Church still has much to do in terms of accountability to leaders and unifying its reforms in the global Church, US Catholicism is far from US law enforcement on ending abuse and dealing with offenders ahead. The number of perpetrators and victims has fallen sharply since the 1990s. And since a charter of child protection guidelines was passed in 2002, a national review panel of lay experts has overseen the annual implementation reviews for each of the country's nearly 200 dioceses.

What happened? Several factors drove the Catholic hierarchy to reform.

A protester was arrested on August 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

One was the financial fallout. Victims and attorneys' compensation and associated costs have skyrocketed, and today more than 20 US dioceses have filed for bankruptcy. Many others remain at risk of financial collapse as older cases continue to come to light and statutes of limitations are repealed in many states.

The political dynamics have also changed. While prosecutors and attorneys general once refused to bring a Catholic bishop to justice for fear of clashes with voters, today it is a political plus to have a report such as the comprehensive historical indictment compiled by the Pennsylvania Attorney General in 2018. The collapse of the credibility of a church based on attracting converts and promoting the common good was unsustainable.

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The bishops reacted hesitantly and imperfectly and were always under pressure from media control. The hierarchy improved the screening and training of seminarians, all Church staff had to report any suspected abuse to civil authorities, and most importantly, the bishops automatically removed any priest accused of wrongdoing. If an examination board found the allegations "credible" or "well founded" – a much lower bar than a court – the offending priest was permanently disqualified or even invalidated. That was almost unknown before and the abuse rate has fallen.

None of this has happened in American law enforcement. Police officers with a number of allegations and violations in their personnel file often have no consequences or can find work in other departments. At this point, it is easier to unleash an abusive priest than to fire a violent cop. Qualified immunity laws have also protected the police, and with a reliable supply of taxpayers' money willingly paid by citizens who sense danger on every corner and want the most militarized police force possible, municipalities will shell out millions each year to resolve police misconduct lawsuits to settle instead of changing their ways.

Police abuse is not seen as a scandal

The most disturbing difference, however, is that the Catholic Church has always viewed child abuse as a sin and a scandal. Yes, the first instinct was to cover it up, then minimize or explain the abuse and shift the blame. But there was always an understanding that the abuse was bad, and when the denial stopped working, real reform began.

Police abuse, on the other hand, is too often not viewed as deviant at all. Rather, they are seen as a perhaps deplorable but always acceptable part of the difficult task of keeping the peace. More worrisome is the attitude that the popping of heads – or worse – will be seen as commendable and even heroic as more smartphone videos and body camera footage emerge.

It's not about a few "bad apples". It is a sign of a toxic culture that produces offenders and protects the guilty. We have known that for a long time. As early as 1972, the Knapp Commission, which investigated police corruption in New York, said that the "bad apples doctrine" means: "It must never be admitted that … individual corruption can be symptomatic of underlying diseases." The commission concentrated on a few bad apples and reported, "In many ways, this has been a fundamental obstacle to meaningful reform."

Subsequent studies of police culture supported this conclusion, though community leaders couldn't resist the "strong emotional and political appeal" of the bad apple declaration. Researchers who began investigating the Catholic Church scandal in the early 2000s also saw the fallacy of the "bad apples doctrine". As Michael White and Karen Terry wrote in a 2008 paper, "the profession itself plays an important role in dissenting clergy, just as the police working environment plays a role in police brutality."

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Pope Francis, who, after initial missteps, made unprecedented strides in punishing offenders and facilitators in the hierarchy, has also come to this realization. Francis regularly denounces a culture of “clericalism,” which is the pastoral equivalent of an approach to policing that puts officials above the law. For Francis, a lofty, iconic "warrior" view of the priesthood does not make true pastors, but creates "little monsters."

Yet the temptation remains to scapegoat the few in order to excuse the many. Just last month, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote a comprehensive defense of the NYPD, comparing what they endure with that of the Catholic clergy, saying, "There are bad apples, but they are very rare."

The Catholic Church cannot afford to revert to this way of thinking and the "rotten apple doctrine" must be removed from the catechism of American law enforcement agencies. The United States does not have a Pope. We have a federal government that has been part of the problem for too long. The current wave of protests could mark the beginning of a profound change in policing that finally put Catholicism on the right track following the 2002 revelations in Boston.

In a first step, national reforms like the law passed by parliament in June must become law. However, it is not just about changing the guidelines; it is about changing our entire law enforcement culture so that the police, like the priests, will remember their true calling: protection and service.

David Gibson, Director of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University, is a seasoned journalist who specializes in reporting on the Catholic Church.

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