A new documentary on Roman Polanski could use a sequel about the summer of 2010 when three stories of scandal collided in the news with vastly different spins.
You almost got to enjoy – or endure, as the case may be – one of my notorious science posts slated for this week, but my topic was hijacked by The Wall Street Journal’s Nancy Dewolf Smith. In the September 27 edition, she penned a review of a Showtime documentary entitled “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out.” I likely would never again have written of Roman Polanski if not for this brief review, but it was so unlike all other media coverage I’ve seen on this story that I just couldn’t let it go by. So TSW is Earthbound for now, but will soon take off once again to The Final Frontier. Fair notice!
This subject, however, exposes a darker side of life on Earth. In the summer of 2010, three simultaneous stories appeared in the news. The three stories were entirely unrelated, but I am going to draw a thread of connection between them. Two of the stories – involving famed film director Roman Polanski and Atlanta Baptist preacher, Bishop Eddie Long – became national news while the third, that of then 80-year-old Boston priest, the much beloved Father Dominic Menna, appeared solely in The Boston Globe.
I’ll start this thread of connection with the story of Roman Polanski. “It wasn’t rape rape!” That hapless but famous phrase of actress Whoopi Goldberg summed up Hollywood’s horrified reaction, not to the 1977 crime of film director Roman Polanski, but to his 2009 arrest as a fugitive from justice. I wrote of Whoopi Goldberg’s now famous quote excusing Roman Polanski in a 2009 post that had an unfortunate title, “The Whoopi Cushion.” (TSW was only a few months old then, and I got carried away with clever titles – sorry!)
To refresh your memory, Roman Polanski was accused in Los Angeles in 1977 of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl after a Hollywood photo shoot. After Mr. Polanski’s 1977 arrest in L.A., he and his lawyers negotiated a plea deal for a lesser charge and he spent a few weeks in psychiatric care. Then, just before sentencing in 1978, he fled the United States and hid in plain sight in France for the next 30+ years. The French government, concluding that the U.S. justice system borders on the barbaric, refused to arrest Roman Polanski.
Thirty-one years passed. Then in 2009, Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland when he arrived to collect the Zurich Film Festival’s highest honor for the film industry, the Lifetime Achievement Award. He spent nine months under house arrest in a Swiss chalet as many in Hollywood and the international film industry expressed their outrage in Polanski’s defense. Hence Whoopi Goldberg’s famous, “It wasn’t rape rape!” The consensus of Hollywood was that the crime happened too long ago to be treated justly in the American legal system and in the American news media.
Think about that for a moment. My “crimes,” which never occurred at all, were claimed to have happened sometime between 1978 and 1983. The cases against many Catholic priests hauled before U.S. courts or thrown out on the streets after the U.S. Bishops’ Dallas Charter were claimed to have occurred from 20 to 50 years before the priests were accused. Whoopi Goldberg’s own television venue, “The View,” routinely demonized accused priests, their bishops, and the Catholic Church over these claims.
I wrote about this debacle in a summer, 2010 post entitled “Roman Polanski, Father Marcial Maciel, and the Eye of the Beholder.” In that post I cited one Hollywood pundit who argued in defense of the media response to all this by claiming that the case against Roman Polanski should be treated differently from the claims against Catholic priests – make sure you’re sitting down for this – “because the entertainment industry doesn’t have the influence on children and young people that the Catholic Church has.” The only possible response to this is a quote I’ll lift from Nancy Dewolf Smith’s September 27 WSJ review of “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out”:
“What keeps it so galling is the outraged reaction of the director’s supporters that such a man, such an artiste, should have to suffer at the hands of rough American justice… Watching someone in this film talk about how he wept with despair as Mr. Polanski was led off to prison in Zurich [followed quickly by house arrest], you have to wonder how many moral idiots the world is made of.”
ROMAN POLANSKI MEETS FATHER DOMINIC MENNA
That headline is misleading because they didn’t really meet, but their respective stories collided in The Boston Globe in the summer of 2010. After nine months of house arrest in Switzerland, the Swiss government announced in July, 2010 that it will not extradite Roman Polanski to face U.S. justice, and he was free to go wherever he wanted. After a daily eight-year barrage against Catholic priests, bishops, and the Pope for decades-old claims of sexual abuse, the July 14, 2 010 issue of The Boston Globe published a paltry 2-inch editorial at the bottom of its Opinion Page with a wimpy declaration that freeing Polanski “sends a disturbing message about how money and celebrity can supersede morality and justice.” I wrote at the time:
“What would be the media response if it was the Vatican, and not the government of Switzerland, refusing to extradite the accused in a 30-year-old claim? Do you think that would merit a two-inch editorial buried in The Boston Globe? (TSW, August 4, 2010)
Just a month earlier, The Boston Globe widely reported on the case of Father Dominic Menna, a much beloved 80-year-old priest spending his senior years in service to the people of Saint Mary’s Parish in Quincy, Massachusetts. In the summer of 2 010, the Archdiocese of Boston announced that Father Menna was accused of sexual abuse of a minor. Some of the news accounts failed to mention that this was alleged to have occurred over 50 years earlier in 1959 when Father Menna was 29 years old. For this, the 80-year old Father Menna was removed from ministry, banished from the home he shared with other priests, and sent into silent exile. I wrote of this story in the summer of 2010 in a post entitled, “The Exile of Father F. Dominic Menna and Transparency at The Boston Globe.”
While trashing the good name of Father Menna in the pages of The Boston Globe, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston declined to provide any details about the accuser citing “the privacy of those involved” and “the integrity of the investigation.” What investigation? Well, to be honest, there wasn’t one. There was no magic by which the Archdiocese of Boston could fairly and justly investigate a 51-year-old claim of abuse. Due process wasn’t possible, so there simply wasn’t any. ”Integrity” is the last word the Archdiocese should have used to describe this matter. The treatment of Father Menna based on this claim was the intersection between the U.S. Bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy, and zero common sense. The Father Menna case typified a point raised in “A Thorn in the Flesh” by Canadian Catholic blogger, Michael Brandon:
“The Catholic Church has become the safest place in the world for children, but the most dangerous place in the world for our priests.” (Freedom Through Truth, September 10, 2010)
BISHOP EDDIE LONG MEETS THE PRESS
As the Roman Polanski and Father Dominic Menna stories were receiving simultaneous, separate but unequal treatment in the news, a third story unfolded in 2010. A Wall Street Journal (Sept. 27, 2010) article entitled, “Influential Pastor Pledges to Fight Sexual Allegations” lured some Catholics who hoped it was about a priest.
It wasn’t. The story was about claims brought by four young men who were members of Bishop Eddie Long’s Atlanta Baptist church. I wrote about this in “When Priests Are Falsely Accused: Why Accusers Should Be Named” in October 2010. The details were painfully familiar to Catholics. The young men claimed in lawsuits and news reports that Bishop Eddie Long “lavished them with gifts,” “groomed them,” and then sexually abused them when they were 17 or 18 years old.
Unlike almost all similar claims against priests, however, the lawsuits against Bishop Long surfaced two or three years after the claimed abuse and not 20 or 30 years later. Also unlike the cases against most Catholic priests, the lawyer for the young men accusing Bishop Eddie Long released the accusers’ names to the news media.
The greatest difference between that Baptist church’s handling of this, and the Catholic bishops’ handling of cases against U.S. Catholic priests, however, was that the Baptists were not saddled with an obstacle to justice like the U.S. Bishops’ 2002 Dallas Charter. The Baptist parish settled the lawsuits with no admission of guilt on the part of the church or its pastor. After a brief time out, Bishop Eddie Long returned to his pulpit while any similarly accused Catholic priest would have been ruined for life, often forcibly laicized, and too often abandoned by his bishop.
After my post, “Our Catholic Tabloid Frenzy About Fallen Priests,” a priest responded with a defense of the settlement process. He wrote that bishops must also protect their dioceses against lawsuits so settlements are a necessary tool. That may be true. With the emotionally charged hysteria created against priests by the news media and groups like S.N.A.P. and Voice of the Faithful, dioceses risk financial ruin fighting a lawsuit.
The difference is the 2002 Dallas Charter adopted by the U.S. Bishops in a time of panic. It has the effect of placing every accused priest and his bishop in a classic “Catch-22.” The Charter’s zero tolerance policy holds that every priest credibly accused is out of ministry forever, no matter how long ago the claim. No Catholic bishop is in a position to settle, and then publicly hold that the claim was not credible. In that set-up, settlement often becomes the sole “evidence” against a priest.
Meanwhile, in California – the same state in which Roman Polanski has been awarded three Oscars since his conviction for child rape, and the same state from which he remains a fugitive from justice – legislators passed a bill last month to reopen expired lawsuits against the Catholic Church while exempting public schools. Only time will tell whether California Governor Jerry Brown has the moral courage to veto such an unjust bill.
And to those who pretend that it’s all been equal and just, I can only respond once again with Nancy Dewolf Smith’s most poignant quote about the defenders of Roman Polanski: “You have to wonder how many moral idiots the world is made of.”