It’s pretty easy to fall into collective cynicism these days, as one public figure after another disappoints in spectacular fashion.
In Kansas City, the Catholic bishop chose a policy of containment over the protection of children. Now a priest is charged with possession of child pornography.
In Washington, a member of Congress, who self-righteously berates political foes on TV talk shows, was exposed — quite literally — as an Internet predator and liar.
In California, the high-profile former governor admitted to concealing the existence of an out-of-wedlock child from his constituents and even from his wife.
Choose your reaction: Head-shaking wonder at the sheer stupidity of Congressman Anthony Weiner. Outrage at the head-in-the-sand posture of Bishop Robert Finn. Frustration at the futility of trusting the people who are supposed to be in charge. A feeling that everything, lately, is off center.
Hope probably wouldn’t be the sentiment that comes to mind as we contemplate this spate of outrages. But beneath the headlines, there are reasons to take heart.
First, let’s consider the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who before last month was the influential head of the International Monetary Fund.
According to reports, Strauss-Kahn, a Frenchman, is one of those master-of-the-universe types who assume that power gives one the right to act like a lout. He was known as a groper. Some women refused to work with him or be in an office alone with him. Rumors swirled around him for years. A young French journalist said he’d assaulted her. But he suffered no consequences.
On May 14, a 32-year-old African immigrant who cleans rooms at a hotel for the rich and famous in New York fled a luxury suite and reported she’d been sexually assaulted by a client. Hotel staff called the cops. New York police officers didn’t give a hoot about Strauss-Kahn’s position or power. They believed the housekeeper spoke the truth, and they went to Kennedy Airport and hauled the mighty IMF chief out of his first-class seat on the New York-Paris flight.
Strauss-Kahn faces multiple charges, including attempted rape. The man who was known for mistreating women and yet still was considered a leading contender for the French presidency appears to have met his match in the U.S. justice system, which in this case considers a courageous single mother to be the equal of one of the world’s top financial figures.
That’s the way justice is supposed to work. When it does, it’s a beautiful thing to contemplate.
Closer to home, we have the case of the Catholic priest charged with possessing pornographic photos of children taken around churches and schools with which he’d been affiliated in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Its leaders, including Finn, ignored warnings that Father Shawn Ratigan behaved inappropriately around children.
But although leaders at the top failed their flock, others in this story did the right thing.
Julie Hess, principal of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, North, outlined her concerns about Ratigan in a letter to the diocese vicar a year ago. That was an act of courage; school officials are expendable in the Catholic hierarchy.
As Hess related in her letter, teachers tried to protect the children from Ratigan. They agreed in a faculty meeting to keep watch and intervene when necessary. One teacher confronted the priest at recess.
Teachers in general are catching a lot of flack these days, and most of it is unfair. In this instance, skilled teachers and a conscientious principal literally and figuratively placed themselves between their young charges and their church hierarchy.
In this case, also, the justice system stepped into the void.
While diocesan officials dithered over whether the hundreds of images of children — some nude — on Ratigan’s computer actually constituted pornography, police and prosecutors had no such doubts. Prosecutors filed charges within three hours of viewing the case file.
Leaders will rise and fall, inspire and disappoint. To place too much faith in any one of them is to risk a bumpy landing. It’s the systems, especially the rule of law, that require our trust and vigilance.