Caged Priest

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Probably few people this side of Gitmo are more profoundly outcast from society and human sympathy than convicted child molester priests. How tempting, then, to allow ourselves to feel a terrible spark of collective pride in our dysfunctional penal system at their sentencing — in anticipation of the “prison justice” they likely face.

“He is also at higher risk of sexual violence, though the notion that McCormack deserves protection from the very type of crime he committed offends some,” the Chicago Tribune writes of ex-priest Daniel McCormack, who was recently convicted of molesting five boys while assigned to a parish on Chicago’s West Side, and was sentenced to five years at Illinois’ Jacksonville Correctional Center.

“I just don’t think a priest has been equipped in his life to go through what he’s probably going to go through,” a union rep for prison guards told the Tribune. “Inmates tend to have their own code of justice. It’s a different world inside the prison fence or wall.”

I’m groping here at the edge of language, for words that may not exist, or if they did once exist have been bloated over the years with irony in the service of false grief, twisted, soured, turned into thought traps. Understanding? Sympathy? Caring? Why should we care about the fate of one caged priest?

Maybe because to care when one is tempted so enormously not to care is the real deal, the only way that word has any meaning, and the only way the word can work against the entrenched mistakes we have made and keep making, resurrect core values and open the door to something better.

I think also that we reap in kind what we do collectively, whether it’s educating our children or waging war and meting out barbaric punishment. To jettison wrongdoers, whatever they have done, into a cesspool of rage and revenge isn’t just wrong in some abstract sense but actively counterproductive. It feeds the social beast. It keeps alive — I am convinced — the horrors that plague us.

Our current penal system has less to do with justice than with perpetuating itself. The prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance calls it the Prison Industrial Complex, a swollen gulag of more than 2 million mostly minority inmates that has grown by 400 percent in the last two decades.

It’s a holding institution that has failed in effecting much “penitence” (root of the word “penitentiary”) from the sad souls who pass through it. Most of them come back — according to a 1994 study, 67 percent of the inmates in state prisons committed a crime within three years of their release — and all remain in a permanently stigmatized state, “barred employment opportunities,” Critical Resistance notes on its Web site, “disenfranchised, and often prohibited from getting federal loans, applying for public housing, or getting services. . . . Our communities only become weaker when we use punishment to solve our problems.”

What we have here, in other words, is a bureaucratic maw effective primarily at meting out primitive vengeance in the form of confinement and its attendant miseries. As an enormously costly system that helps spread the problems it is mandated to eradicate, it could be the model for the Bush administration’s war on terror.

So what are we, then, to feel for a fallen priest or any other human being guilty of some deep betrayal of our trust? And in the same breath, we must also ask, what are we to feel for those who are victimized? When heinous crimes are committed — murder, rape, child abuse — how do we repair the ripped fabric of our lives? These are all a single question, and those inadequate words — caring, sympathy, understanding — only begin to regain their integrity when we expand their scope so they embrace not just the easy parts of that question.

Crime and punishment constitute a sort of a game that needs to be interrupted. Is it possible? A year ago, Forbes published an article called “Ten Alternatives to Prison,” which put forward ideas that ranged from the hyper-obvious (treatment programs for nonviolent drug offenders) to the dubious (shame billboards along the highway, containing the names and pictures of men who solicited prostitutes).

The value I found in the piece was less in the different programs it discussed than in its sheer recognition that we have options other than more of the same. Even if we can’t redeem a fallen priest, we can do better than offering him as a sacrifice to a system that has given up on redemption.