The mantra invoked when episodes of police brutality or corruption come to light, as they do with gut-wrenching regularity these days, is that it’s just a matter of “a few bad apples.” It’s an all-too familiar refrain to those of us who have covered sex abuse in religion for so many years, especially the high-profile and well-documented cases of the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.
It’s also the wrong way to think about the problem. The Catholic Church is learning that lesson, but too many law enforcement agencies are not. And there’s no reason that police departments shouldn’t be doing at least as much, and as well, as the Catholic Church when it comes to ending abuses given that the two cultures are so similar.
In fact, when social scientists began looking for analogies to better understand and explain the particular dynamics of the priesthood that could foster abuse — especially after the 2002 tipping-point scandal in Boston — the best comparison was to police departments.
Abuse in the Catholic church
The “vertical organizational structures” and “rigid command layers” of the church, like the police, “may encourage deviant behavior within the ranks as well as impede organizational reform,” wrote researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in their 2011 “Causes and Context” study on the crisis of the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Among both cops and clergy, they said, there is a shared reluctance to report “deviant or criminal behavior, largely out of fear of ostracism by their peers,” and the instinct of administrators is to hide such behaviors.
In that study, the researchers noted that the Catholic bishops of the United States had initially followed the example of many cities by establishing review boards like those that proliferated in the wake of police corruption and brutality episodes like the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Yet if the Catholic Church still has much to do as far as accountability for leaders and standardizing its reforms in the global church, U.S. Catholicism is now far ahead of U.S. law enforcement in terms of stopping abuse and dealing with perpetrators. The numbers of abusers and victims have dropped sharply since the 1990s. And since the 2002 adoption of a charter of child protection policies, a National Review Board of lay experts has overseen annual implementation audits of each of the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses.
What happened? Several factors pushed the Catholic hierarchy to reform.
One was the financial fallout. Compensation for victims and lawyers and related costs mounted into the billions, and today more than 20 U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy. Many others remain at risk of financial collapse as older cases continue to come to light and statute of limitation laws in many states are lifted.
The political dynamics changed as well. While prosecutors and attorneys general were once loath to take a Catholic bishop to court for fear of the fallout with voters, today it is a political plus to issue a report like the sweeping historical indictment compiled in 2018 by Pennsylvania’s attorney general. The collapse of credibility of a church predicated on drawing converts and promoting the common good was unsustainable.
The bishops responded, haltingly and imperfectly, and always under the pressure of media scrutiny. The hierarchy improved screening and training for seminarians, all church personnel were required to report any suspicions of abuse to civil authorities, and, most important, the bishops automatically removed from ministry any priest who was accused of misconduct. If a review board found the allegations “credible” or “substantiated” — a much lower bar than a court of law — the offending priest was permanently barred from ministry or even defrocked. That was almost unheard of before, and the rate of abuse has plummeted.
None of that has happened in American law enforcement. Police officers with a string of accusations and violations on their personnel file often face no consequences or can find jobs in other departments. At this point it’s easier to defrock an abusive priest than it is to fire a violent cop. Qualified immunity laws have also protected police, and with a reliable supply of taxpayer dollars — willingly paid by citizens who sense danger around every corner and want a police force as militarized as possible — municipalities will shell out millions each year to settle lawsuits over police misconduct rather than change their ways.
Police abuses aren't seen as scandals
But the most disturbing difference is that the Catholic Church always saw child abuse as a sin, and a scandal. Yes, the first instinct was to cover it up, then to minimize the abuse or explain it away and shift the blame. But there was always an understanding that the abuse was bad, and when denial no longer worked genuine reform began.
Police abuses, on the other hand, are too often not considered deviant at all. Rather, they are viewed as a perhaps lamentable but always acceptable part of the tough job of keeping the peace. More worrisome, as more smartphone videos and body camera footage emerge, is the attitude that cracking heads — or worse — is seen as praiseworthy and even heroic.
That’s not a matter of a few “bad apples.” It’s a sign of a toxic culture that produces offenders and protects the guilty. We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1972 the Knapp Commission that investigated police corruption in New York City said the “rotten apple doctrine” meant “it must never be admitted that … individual corruption may be symptomatic of underlying disease.” Focusing on a few bad apples, the commission reported, “has in many ways been a basic obstacle to meaningful reform.”
Subsequent studies of police culture bolstered that conclusion even as municipal leaders couldn’t resist the “powerful emotional and political appeal” of the rotten apple explanation. Researchers who began studying the Catholic Church’s scandal in the early 2000s also saw the fallacy of the “rotten apple doctrine.” As Michael White and Karen Terry wrote in a 2008 paper, in the case of deviant clergy “the profession itself plays a contributing role much in the same way that the working environment of the police plays a role in police brutality.”
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Pope Francis — who after initial missteps has taken unprecedented strides in punishing offenders and enablers in the hierarchy — has also come around to this realization. Francis regularly denounces a culture of “clericalism,” which is the pastoral equivalent of an approach to policing that sees officers as above the law. For Francis, an exalted, iconic, “warrior” view of the priesthood does not form true pastors but instead creates “little monsters.”
Still, the temptation to scapegoat the few in order to excuse the many remains strong. Just last month New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote a full-throated defense of the NYPD that compared what they are enduring to that of the Catholic clergy, saying “that while bad apples there indeed may be, they are very rare.”
The Catholic Church can’t afford to return to that mindset, and the “rotten apple doctrine” must be expunged from the catechism of American law enforcement. The United States doesn’t have a pope. We do have a federal government that for too long has been part of the problem. The current wave of protests could be the start of the kind of sea change in policing that, after the revelations in Boston in 2002, finally set Catholicism on the right path.
As a first step, national reforms like the bill passed in June by the House must become law. Yet the point is not simply to change policies but to begin to transform our entire law enforcement culture so that police, like priests, remember their truest vocation: to protect and serve.
David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, is a veteran journalist who specializes in coverage of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: @GibsonWrites
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police must confront toxic, abusive culture like Catholic Church did