Police and Priests in the Streets

From genesis to revelation
The next generation will be hear me
And all the crowd comes in day by day
No one stop it in anyway
And all the peacemaker turn war officer
Hear what i say

–“Police and Thieves,” J Boog

For the longest time, the figure of the Catholic priest was a symbol of moral weight in American popular culture, which was rather odd, given our nation’s predominantly Protestant background. The movie Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O’Malley, was the highest grossing picture of 1944 and won seven Academy Awards. Or think of The Exorcist, both a bestselling book and one of the most popular movies of all time, with its priestly characters cast as the heroes in a struggle against demonic forces. When I was growing up, one of my favorite comic books, Suicide Squad (by John Ostrander and Kim Yale and a far superior product in its original iteration than the movie) even featured a wise priestly character taking up residence at the Belle Reeve prison where the squad is headquartered in order to minister to the various misfits there.

In short, if you needed a character to provide moral leadership in some story or other, chances are you went with a priest.

But, you may have noticed, something changed around 2002. And changed quickly. Of course, that’s the year that the Boston Globe published its famous “Spotlight” series on clerical sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. Almost overnight, it seemed, our perceptions of priests were radically altered, so that the collar now evokes some semblance of reverence only among the already dedicated, rather than the general population at large.

(Funny story: I’ve a friend who is a priest with the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, a group affiliated with the Old Catholics who broke away from the Church after Pius IX declared himself infallible. The ECC does not forbid priestly marriage and is typically progressive on most issues. After some years, he had a large enough group that he had to start taking things to the next level, which included getting insurance for him and another priest to cover things like malpractice. However, in calling up insurance companies, as soon as he uttered the word “Catholic,” they would hang up on him because they regarded covering Catholic priests as a losing proposition. So he had to call back multiple times in order to explain his particular denomination.)

In a short period of time, we became privy to the reality of Catholic priesthood, and our perception of the agents of priesthood shifted accordingly. Very few people nowadays think of a priest without thinking at least of the possibility of child rape. Jokes about altar boys still have currency in popular culture.

I have to wonder if, right now, we’re at a similar tipping point with the police. After all, just as with priests, cops have long been a trusted part of American society (if you are white and middle class) and a staple of our popular culture. Yes, we love Andy Griffith, but we also love the rougher cops who have to break the laws in order to get things done because we see their actions outside the boundaries of normal police procedure as necessary for the protection of the public good. Moreover, shows like CSI or NCIS show us a job bubbling over with technical wizardry that lets us see crime fighting as largely a technical pursuit removed from policies and social relations, thus appealing to our American sense of innovation, and our relative ignorance of the larger structures that give shape to our lives.

But now? After weeks, even white America has to admit the fact that police in general, police brutality specifically, far from serving the cause of public order, are often the source of public disorder. We have seen again and again beating bystanders, shooting people on their front porches to stop them filming, pepper-spraying and tear-gassing young people exercising their constitutional rights in a legitimate manner, and even, in one rather infamous example, arresting the very people who had flagged them down to draw attention to looters. This is just their response to the protests of police brutality. The original act that spawned this round of protests (or was the proverbial straw that broke the back of public patience) was the slow murder of George Floyd. More and more these days, we can see the police for what they really are: authoritarian, violent gangs who imagine themselves warriors against chaos, just like previous generations of fascist street thugs.

And now, the public’s desire to imbibe more of this culture is wearing thin. Not as many people are eager right at this moment to have even symbolic affiliation with the police. Hell, even Lego is withdrawing advertising for any cop-themed products. Will our view of the police go the way of the Catholic priest?

Whether it does or not, the experience of the Catholic Church can guide us in how best we might address the system of criminality that is our policing institutions. Namely because the Catholic Church has not yet been reformed in a real effort to prevent priests from predating upon young children. Sure, the Church has some policies requiring that suspected abusers be reported to secular authorities, but we don’t have any figures on how well that is actually working. And there may be some oversight boards staffed by lay people, but they only function to the limits that bishops allow. What the Catholic Church has accomplished wouldn’t even rise to the level of window dressing.

Father Thomas P. Doyle has written that the “sex abuse crisis” is no crisis at all but instead “a worldwide manifestation of a complex, systemic and self-destructive condition in the church,” adding that church leaders have primarily been concerned with “what is best for the image, the reputation, the power and the financial security of the clerical elite. The persistent failure to make it all go away is akin to trying to fix a hardware problem with a software solution.”

The condition of the church is marked by clericalism; or, as Doyle puts it: “The clerical culture, or clericalism, is the most commonly identified contributor. This is a world set apart from the rest of society. It is sustained by the toxic belief that the ordained are not only set apart from lay people but superior to them. This belief fosters the narcissism and sense of entitlement so common among clerics…. It creates, sustains and protects the deference that far too many clerics believe is their due. By the same token, far too many lay people continue to believe that this deference is part of their Catholic belief system. This erroneous thinking is at the root of the failure to demand accountability from the offending clerics and their superiors who protect them.”

Hmmm… Do we see something similar to police culture here? A world set apart from the rest of society, superior to that society, believing itself entitled to certain benefits, most notably the benefit of deference that produces a failure to demand accountability?

Moreover, Doyle notes that, because of the culture of the priesthood, it tends to attract men who are socially and sexually dysfunctional. Likewise, does the culture of policing attract the sort of men who enjoy violence and preying upon the weak. And both groups are apt to respond to any attempt at accountability as an attack upon their ontologically elevated status and resist it with full force. And both groups have typically regarded the documented misdeeds of any of their numbers as a case of “a few bad apples” and not as a sign that the whole culture needs to be reformed. But as Doyle writes, “The true scandal did not arise from the sexual violation of children and adults. The real scandal came from the bishops themselves through their efforts to hide the problem, then lie about it and finally try to shift the blame to any person, idea or practice they hoped it would stick to.”

The laity have no real power in the Catholic Church, aside from leaving. I mean, they do not get to choose, or even influence, their choice of parish priest. They do not get a vote for bishop, archbishop, or pontiff. They may be allowed a presence at church councils, such as the Second Vatican Council, but they will not be voting on the final articles. All they have is the ability to leave, to take their money and their children with them, and many have, leading to the closure of parishes across the country. But the Catholic Church still retains its wealth wrapped up in property, and it still receives generous tax breaks from state and federal governments. Moreover, the departure of those who disapprove of the current clerical culture only leaves behind a population even more invested in the predator-producing culture of clericalism, so the problem is not solved entirely by withdrawal, short of everyone withdrawing.

We may have more luck with policing. Sure, there are similar hindrances. In many places, there are not even civilian review boards to examine allegations of police violence or set standards for police behavior. And, unlike churches, we cannot withdraw from local and state taxes, unless you happen to be rich enough to game your way out of them. But our democratically elected leaders do set the budgets for law enforcement agencies, and so we have some influence there. Too, we can ask ourselves just what events actually warrant calling the cops. The store where George Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit banknote has publicly announced that it will no longer be calling the police when passed a counterfeit bill. There are plenty of issues that we can probably solve by communicating with one another and working something out, rather than by calling the cops, and so if we can minimize their workload in such a way, we also minimize the justification for spending so much money on them. And we can draw those purse strings tight and force a change of culture.

The same structures and cultures that produce rapist priests also produce brutal policemen. No simple reform, no tinkering at the edges of the problem, will change that. Indeed, those kinds of reforms tend to push the problem deeper as priests and police become more skilled at hiding their crimes under the new regime. If we want to end clerical rape and police violence, we have to dismantle thoroughly the cultures in which they thrive.


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