the methods of the Official Straighteners

Two recent stories — one involving a Chicago priest named Paul Kalchik and one involving Marine le Pen — have something significant in common. Neither figure is being punished but each is being examined. In Le Pen’s case a psychologist will be tasked with determining whether she is “capable of understanding remarks and answering questions.” Fr. Kalchik’s psychological examination, Cardinal Blaise Cupich wrote, is to ensure that he “receive[s] pastoral support so his needs can be assessed.”

These are perfect embodiments of what C. S. Lewis called “the humanitarian theory of punishment.” Those holding this theory

maintain that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?

Thus Cupich’s claim that his actions are focused on Fr. Kalchik’s “needs.” But Lewis’s continuation is vital: “One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments.” And, from the point of view of the state or any other governing body, this shift from punishment to healing has certain desirable consequences. More from Lewis, on an article he had recently read:

The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts — and they are not experts in moral thology nor even in the Law of Nature — who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

It is not clear, of course, that there will be any “sentence” of Fr. Kalchik or Marine Le Pen. But the remote possibility of lengthy punishment is coupled with the immediate certainty of compulsory therapy at the hands of people who wield enormous power over their future. This is certainly meant to have a profound deterrent effect not only on them but in the one case on all priests in the Diocese of Chicago and in the other on the French public as a whole. Pour encourager les autres and all that.

Lewis is at pains to emphasize that his case against the Humanitarian theory of punishment assumes “no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian.”

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

But what if the official straighteners are not good people? You’ll have to read the rest of his essay to find out.

on necks that need millstones around them

In the Diocese of Allentown, for example, documents show that a priest was confronted about an abuse complaint. He admitted, “Please help me. I sexually molested a boy. “The diocese concluded that “the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma” for the victim, and that the family should just be given “an oportunity to ventilate.” The priest was left in unrestricted ministry for several more years, despite his own confession.

Similarly in the Diocese of Erie, despite a priest’s admission to assaulting at least a dozen young boys, the bishop wrote to thank him for “all that you have done for God’s people. The Lord, who sees in private, will reward. “Another priest confessed to anal and oral rape of at least 15 boys, as young as seven years old. The bishop later met with the abuser to commend him as “a person of candor and sincerity, “and to compliment him” for the progress he has made “in controlling his “addiction.” When the abuser was finally removed from the priesthood years later, the bishop ordered the parish not to say why; “nothing else need be noted.”

— The grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. You need a strong stomach to read much of it; I couldn’t manage more than a few pages. But this was the passage that, though not explicit about what the priests did to children, most caught my eye. Even when the priests knew they were doing terrible things, even when they wanted to be held accountable, even when they desperately desired for children to be protected from them, the bishops refused. Faced not only with horrifically abused children, but also with abusers who cried out to be restrained, they did nothing. They all but forced the abuse to continue — they could not have done more if they had themselves desired above all things the destruction of lives.

The Lord, who sees in private, will reward.

empathy and leniency

Judge Aaron Persky empathized with Brock Allen Turner and could easily imagine what it would be like to lose sports fame (as Persky enjoyed), to lose a Stanford education (as Persky enjoyed), to lose the sort of easy success and high regard that a young, reasonably affluent Stanford graduate (like Persky was) can expect as a matter of right.  Judge Persky could easily imagine how dramatically different a state prison is from Stanford frat parties, and how calamitous was Turner’s fall.  That’s how Judge Persky convinced himself to hand such a ludicrously light sentence for such a grotesque violation of another human being.

But most people fed into the criminal justice system aren’t champion athletes with Stanford scholarships.  Most aren’t even high school graduates.  Most are people who have lived lives that are alien and inscrutable to someone successful enough to become a judge.  Judges might be able to empathize with having to quit their beloved college, but how many can empathize with a defendant who lost a minimum-wage job because they couldn’t make bail?  How many can empathize with someone more likely to sleep by a dumpster than exit a frat party next to one?  They can conceive of the humiliation of being on the sex offender registry after getting into an elite university, but can they conceive of the humiliation of being stopped, frisked, detained, and beaten with impunity because of the color of their skin?  Experience teaches that the answer is usually no.

This means that the system is generally friendly to defendants who look like Brock Allen Turner and generally indifferent or cruel to people who don’t look like him.  No high school dropout who rapes an unconscious girl behind a dumpster is getting six months in jail and a solicitous speech from the likes of Judge Persky.  Judges take their youth as a sign that they are “superpredators,” not as grounds for leniency.  If you tell a judge that they aren’t a danger to others, the judge will peer over his or her glasses and remark that people who rape unconscious girls in the dirt are self-evidently dangerous, and don’t be ridiculous.  Judges don’t think that a good state prison stretch will have too severe an impact – after all, what are they missing, really?

Ken White

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