Category Archives: Justice

Same Crime, Different Outcries

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s interesting to contrast reactions to two judgments handed down this week for nearly identical crimes. The reactions speak volumes about our priorities.

On Monday, the NCAA announced Penn State would be fined $60 million, lose football scholarships and be banned from bowl games for four years for the institution’s failure to report child sex abuse that officials – including head football coach Joe Paterno – knew was being committed by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Some pronounced the punishment just, but in other quarters there was a huge outcry. The NCAA was too harsh, it was punishing innocent players, it was tarnishing the image of a coach who ran one of the cleanest programs in college football. Although Sandusky’s crimes against children were conceded as horrible, punishing the school for a cover-up by its leaders was somehow considered out-of-bounds.

Now consider the other judgment, handed down the very next day against Monsignor William Lynn of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Lynn, the staff member responsible for looking into charges of child sex abuse by priests, was sentenced to three to six years in prison for felony child endangerment. In the case of the Rev. Edward Avery, Lynn covered up credible evidence that the priest had molested a boy and then assigned that priest to a church where he assaulted an altar boy.

Lynn’s attorney and the archdiocese called the sentence unfair. Anybody else rush to his defense? Uh-uh.

Two institutions. A similar crime – covering up child sexual abuse to protect an institution. Committed around the same time and only 200 miles apart. Yet utterly different reactions.

Why? Simple: football. Crippling a powerful program that commands huge dollars and rabid loyalties was too much for its fans to bear. And let’s just say the Catholic Church doesn’t have quite the same effect on its faithful as the Nittany Lions do on theirs.

To be sure, there are differences between the two situations. While the Penn State scandal was unprecedented for a major college football program, the Catholic Church has been dealing with fallout from its scandals across the country for almost 20 years now, although this was the first time an official has been convicted of a crime for covering up child abuse.

But to push the comparison a step further, isn’t it true that Lynn’s counterparts at Penn State were President Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz and Paterno himself? Curley and Schultz face criminal charges, and Spanier is under a grand jury investigation. If Paterno had not died in January, might not he be facing indictment as well?

And why wouldn’t he, if he committed the same crime as Lynn? On what basis would those applauding Lynn’s sentence defend Paterno? Just because he was an extraordinarily successful and beloved football coach?

We in Florida should not be too smug. Given the way football rivalries dominate the university life of this state, it is fatuous to suppose that what happened in Pennsylvania couldn’t happen here. If a similar scandal had happened at Florida State, it’s easy to imagine that officials might have deferred to Bobby Bowden’s judgment as Curley did to Paterno’s.

What does it say about our society that we declare hanging is too good for a priest who covered up abuse, but a college football program that does the same is allowed to continue to take the field?

What it says is that our priorities – and our moral values – are very, very skewed.


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‘Stand Your Ground’ Reflects Do-It-Yourself Culture

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The Trayvon Martin case prompted a political cartoon by R.J. Matson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A black guy holds a smoking gun pointed at a dispatched white guy, also holding a gun, lying under a neighborhood watch sign. The black guy says to a cop, “I had a reasonable fear the neighborhood watch guy following me was going to fear for his life and shoot … so I shot him first.” To which the cop replies, “Makes sense to me.”

Matson puts his finger on a fundamental flaw of the Stand Your Ground law, which the Martin case has exposed. When someone –- in this case, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman -– can shoot an unarmed kid and escape charges by hiding behind the law, it allows any amateur with a weapon to be a de facto professional.

Sure, cops can and do make deadly mistakes in confrontations. They’re human after all, and it’s a regrettable, and fairly rare, consequence of dealing with dangerous types. They sometimes mistake the innocent for the guilty, but they have training and rules to follow, with potential consequences if they don’t.

Zimmerman had no training, no rules and until now, no consequences.

Stand Your Ground is only the latest example of our do-it-myself culture, with its increasing intolerance for imperfections in the cords of community that are supposed to bind us together. It’s an I’m-OK-You’re-Not-OK attitude that demands the reins of control, no matter the activity.

Your kid’s teacher gives him a D on a test? Obviously she’s incompetent, and you are certain you can do a better job home-schooling little Johnny. Don’t like your doctor’s recommendation to take two aspirin instead of the latest prescription sensation? How dare he ignore your Internet research? You fire him and shop for a doctor who will do your bidding.

Stand Your Ground is a big helping of a volatile stew of rugged individualist mythology, Second Amendment fanaticism and the narcissism that I know best how to take care of myself. What do you mean, call the police and wait? Not when I’ve got a trusty .45. I mean, how hard can it be to subdue a bad guy? He is a bad guy, right?

Unfortunately, our entertainment culture contributes to the conviction that we should seize the levers of justice from failing institutions. Every film about superheroes or invincibly resourceful mavericks who make up their own rules in the pursuit of right only reinforces the fantasy that we, too, can be Batman.

The danger of Stand Your Ground is that vigilantism is a very real prospect. Anyone with an offended sense of justice now has the means to carry out with impunity what he or she believes to be a balancing of the scales.

What is now to prevent someone in Martin’s family from confronting Zimmerman, skirmishing with him, shooting him, and then claiming the same right of self-defense? The Hatfields and the McCoys could have put Stand Your Ground to good use.

The remedy for Stand Your Ground, short of its repeal, is for state attorneys to not assume a claim of self-defense is an automatic exoneration of manslaughter. Based on the facts as we now know them, filing charges against George Zimmerman might give pause to all do-it-yourself cops.

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