In the New Testament, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. And he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. Like good sheep, they respond to the sound of his voice. They feel totally comfortable around him. More to the point, they feel safe and secure with him. He is their protector. His very presence gives them the assurance that everything is OK. This is the nature of the relationship between a shepherd and his flock.
Cardinal Bernard Law. Chicago Police Superintendent Gerald McCarthy. President Richard Nixon.
Each of these men, in their own way, were shepherds. Each of them rose to positions of great power and authority. But along with the power and authority came great responsibility. Their duty was, not unlike that of the Good Shepherd, to protect their "flock", to make sure that each of the sheep entrusted to their care was safe and secure. Each of those men failed to live up to their responsibility. As a result, the people left in their protective custody, ended up experiencing fear, anxiety, tension, stress and betrayal.
Who can doubt we live in stressful times? There are threats both foreign and domestic, internal and external. If these threats are allowed to go unchecked, the very fabric of our society can come unraveled. That's why any egregious shortcoming on the part of those appointed to act as our protectors is so traumatic. The failure of our leaders, whether religious or secular, represents and fundamental violation of the trust we placed in them.
What makes this betrayal so devastating is that, for the most part, the men I mentioned really didn't do anything much themselves. No one has accused Cardinal Law of child abuse, for instance. Superintendent McCarthy didn't shoot anyone, justified or otherwise. Richard Nixon didn't break into the Watergate Apartment Complex. But each of them placed the defense of the reputation of an institution above their responsibility to those they were obligated to defend.
In the end, each of these men either has answered for their sins of omission. Each of them lost the great power they worked so long and hard to achieve. Their drive and ambition for higher public office came to naught. Had any of these men done the right thing at their moment of testing, they could have held on to the power they so tenaciously strove for. But Cardinal Law felt that defending the honor of the church against the charges directed against individual priests was more important than the lives of the poor innocent children who were the victims of priestly abuse. Superintendent McCarthy felt the same way about defending the honor of the Chicago Police Department. Richard Nixon operated on the delusion that defending his own criminal misconduct somehow defended the honor and authority of the Presidency. Each of them was wrong.
Neither the church, nor an urban police department, or the very Presidency of the United States has ever been in any danger of losing the awesome sweep of their power and authority. These men neglected their responsibilities in the hope that somehow time would erase their sins of omission from recorded history. And it didn't work. But the injury done to the people entrusted to their care, that pain lingers on because we can never completely trust our watchers in the same way ever again. We will never be able to assume that the guardians of the public trust are acting in our own best interest. Too many of us will never be able to view these institutions in the same way again.
I'm not the biggest fan of the term transparency. It seems to be that more often than not we get too MUCH information. And having learned of the many ways our public trust has been betrayed, we have become bitter and cynical, expecting the worst from our public officials. But as we have seen demonstrated, ignorance isn't always bliss. Yes, the public's right to know hasn't always made for best of relationships between those who hold authority and those who live under that authority. It is entirely conceivable that we, as a people, might be infinitely happier if we didn't find out about everything that happens in the public square. But we have also seen in the cases of the gentlemen I've mentioned that ignorance almost invariably leads to abuse. Would we be as sensitized to the plight of children abused by members of the clergy if we hadn't found out just how prevalent that abuse happened to be? Will members of the various police departments around the country feel secure in the knowledge that they can literally get away with murder because no one is watching and that any act of police violence will end up as just another case of he said/she said? Can we take the word of any President at face value after hearing "I am not a crook!" or "I never had sexual relations with that woman.".
But somehow something has been lost. The implicit trust with which we viewed our various institutions of power and authority will NEVER be the same again. And we are reduced to asking the inevitable question, "Who's watching the watchers?".
Filed under: Politics