Church and state in Minnesota have been united by recent events — united in disgrace, that is, as each finally has been called to account for long-standing and long-denied injustices.
Real reform and recompense will be difficult for each of these sinfully proud institutions. But at least the truth has come out.
Archbishop John Nienstedt and a chief lieutenant resigned last week after years of pressure culminated in criminal charges against the Twin Cities archdiocese, alleging that church officials covered up and essentially tolerated clergy sexual abuse of children for decades.
Meanwhile, at long last, state government’s decisive day in court also arrived last week, when federal District Judge Donovan Frank found the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) unconstitutional and a threat to “the moral credibility of the criminal justice system.”
Calling “one last time” for voluntary reforms, Frank emphasized with evident displeasure that state officials (rather like church leaders, one can’t help noticing) have long known full well that there was “something very wrong,” but failed year after year to act.
Public officials knew, the judge writes, that at least some MSOP “clients” pose no real threat to the public — including frail, elderly offenders; mentally handicapped offenders, and offenders who committed their only crimes as kids — yet have been wrongly, needlessly and, it seems, permanently incarcerated in the program, which for 20-plus years has locked selected sex offenders away in so-called “treatment centers” long after they have served their prison sentences.
There’s an odd, mirror-image quality about these injustices. The church did far too little to protect victims of sexual misdeeds and was far too sympathetic to abusers. The state became so fixated with preventing sex crime (or at least with putting on a show of preventing it) that it denied offenders’ most elemental rights.
Together these transgressions are a reminder that injustice comes in more than one form, and that doing justice almost always means balancing critical values, not elevating any one concern above all others.
But at a deeper (or maybe a shallower) level, it’s likely the politicians and the clergymen both went wrong for a less idealistic reason. Somewhere along the way they simply stopped thinking about either the victims who needed protection or the offenders who needed justice — and started thinking about themselves. About whether they would be blamed if the truth came out or something went wrong. About what the consequences might be for themselves or their party or their organization if they rocked the boat and did the right thing.
Moral courage, of course, is rare; maybe none of us can cast the first stone. For sure, responsibility for these church and state misdeeds reaches far beyond current local leaders.
Nienstedt’s dramatic downfall is a local eruption from a large and long-festering corruption in the worldwide Catholic Church. We have to hope that this reckoning for an outspoken socially conservative cleric is a genuine sign of that larger church truly coming to grips with its sexual misconduct crisis, and not merely collateral damage from Minnesota’s culture war battles.
Nienstedt undoubtedly earned the enmity of Minnesota progressives, inside and outside his church, with his aggressive stand against same-sex marriage a couple years back. It was not a pure coincidence when the same fresh DFL legislative majority enacted marriage equality in 2013 and also approved a temporary lifting of the statute of limitations on lawsuits by long-ago victims of childhood sex abuse, which set off a chain reaction of events ending in Neinstedt’s undoing.
All that may be fair enough. What would be unjust is if anyone forgot that many others share the blame for the church’s misdeeds. Nienstedt’s predecessors in leadership — and many other people inside and outside the church — could have and should have done more to protect children over the years.
The injustices at MSOP are similarly the unworthy work of decades, and of many hands. Virtually every leading political figure in Minnesota over the past quarter-century has contributed. (Courts, both state and federal, have also gone along.) The constitutional infirmities of the program were apparent from the beginning. And over and over again, whenever efforts have been made to reform the program, political opportunists have pounced, cynically demonizing any suggestion of slowing commitments or accelerating the journey of these “patients” toward release.
Judge Frank’s opinion details all of that, while documenting how Minnesota stands out among the 20 states that have civil-commitment programs for sex offenders. It is a national leader, he shows, for the carelessness with which it buries offenders alive in a program whose nightmarish, Kafkaesque procedures give them no realistic hope of ever getting out.
This is a time for plain talk. Minnesota’s dewy-eyed progressive champions of human rights and its fearless small-government sons of liberty have combined over the years to construct a gulag worthy of a tin-pot Third World dictatorship.
And apparently they’re still proud of it. They mean to defend it through legal appeals, to judge from the initial defiant response last week from Gov. Mark Dayton and other political posers.
So what mainly separates church and state in Minnesota just now is this: Church leaders, however tardily, have faced some facts.
Judge Frank is giving Minnesota politicians “one last” chance to do the same. It may be more than they deserve.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.