Saturday, July 14, 2012

the rule of law

When, on Christmas Day, 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved, American businessmen began licking their chops: 15 brand new, autonomous regions ripe for McDonald's and The Gap and profits galore. And they tried to gain a capitalist toe hold and in many instances failed. Why? A significant part of the reason was because there was no established rule of law and because the corruptions most businesses understand are the price of doing business were too diffuse and too irrational and too insistent. The price of doing business was too high.

The rule of law ... how easily we take it for granted, however corrupt it may be. The rule of law: What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; a civil society rests on its rule of law or risks falling apart ... into anarchy ... or perhaps dictatorship.

In May of this year, Wisconsin brothers Todd and Troy Merryfield were awarded $700,000 after having been molested by the Rev. John Feeney in 1978. The boys were 12 and 14 at the time. Feeney was sentenced in 2004. The brothers decided after the verdict not to seek punitive damages. They said the case was about the truth, not money, according to a story from the (Appleton, Wisc.) Post-Crescent.

The brothers claimed the diocese knew of the Rev. John Feeney’s illicit sexual history when it installed him as a priest at Freedom’s St. Nicholas Church and misrepresented him as safe while knowing he was a danger to children.
Todd Merryfield hugs his father, Dan, on May 21
On Friday, the Catholic Diocese was back in court asking that the verdict be overturned and a new trial granted. The amount was excessive and Feeney's transfer from one parish to another was not sufficient evidence that the diocese knew of Feeney's pedophile proclivities. If the diocese didn't know, how could they reasonably be asked to pay the fine? There was, in addition, an allegation of a biased juror.

“Nor could they [the diocese], as the assignment of a priest is a canonical act which the civil courts may not evaluate or explain,” [diocese lawyer Sarah Fry Bruch] wrote. The First Amendment gives broad latitude to religious organizations in the conduct of their internal affairs. (emphasis added)
Judge Nancy Krueger will hold a hearing on the diocesan assertions next Tuesday.

Interesting phrase, "broad latitude." An institution that lives under the protection of civil law and civil authority is granted "broad latitude" in its affairs even when those affairs cross lines that civil authority might not grant to its individual citizens. Or, more bluntly, if I screw little boys or support the circumstances in which little boys might get screwed, I can be sent to prison, where inmates look on kiddie rapers as the scum of the earth. But if the same act takes place within the confines of a religious organization, the organization is allowed to police its own ... if policing is what they actually do.

The specific cases of priest sexual abuse are often clouded by the fact that actual instances of molestation take place in private and thus -- should the church choose to lie or clam up -- the cases fall into the category of he-said-she-said. But when the evidence -- circumstantial or otherwise -- mounts and mounts and mounts ... well, at what point do the scales tip and it become axiomatic that allegations of child-molestation are more likely true than false? At what point does the civil authority muster its courage and say that such depredations within a much-protected institution are beyond the pale and then withdraw that protection? At what point does a society and its legal system recognize they have become complicit in a heinousness they claim, by law, to abhor? It's all a bit like saying that the Mafia does not rely on cold-blooded murder for its power ... that, oh well, they don't always kill people ... sometimes they just break a few kneecaps and therefore are not that bad. Just look at all the good the Vatican does.

The case of the Merryfield brothers is as instructive as it is poignant. An institution whose canon law forms the foundation of its being -- its claims to a righteous and virtuous and God-fearing goodness -- uses that law to shield the institution from responsibility or complicity in priest sexual abuse. And that institution expects the civil authority to accede to its Bible-totin' judgment. The argument, sub rosa, seems to be: We are good because we say we are good and you damned well better believe it.

How unconscionably arrogant. But more important, how contrary to the rule of law.

It certainly has nothing to do with an honest spiritual life.

PS. Once again, I am beholden to Bill Lindsey's Bilgrimage blog for pointing out the Merryfield story.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this and clearing up some of my thoughts, as I am one of the brothers that you are writing about and am awaiting the judge's decision from today's hearing. I have tried to figure out how the diocese could argue against me and my brother, even though we have documentation on diocese letterhead and other victims who should not have been victims. This blog hit my thoughts exactly. Thanks!!