Archive for April, 2008

If you’re pro-choice you can’t be Catholic?

April 28, 2008

Image from the Pope’s recent NYC visit, Rudy Guiiniani, along with 2500 fellow worshippers, took communion. The former NYC major was then sharply criticized by NY Archbishop Cardinal Edward Egan who felt Guilani should have abstained because of his pro-choice politics. Earlier this year St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke vowed to deny Giuliani communion should the presidential candidate attend a mass over which he presides, and has further asserted that, “anyone administering Communion is morally obligated to deny it to Catholic politicians who support an abortion-rights position contrary to church teaching.”

Other Catholics have criticized Giuliani’s recent partaking of the sacrament on the grounds of his divorces.

This select proscription seems arbitrary and difficult to understand. If Giuliani’s unworthy to receive communion, is he worthy to be a member of the church? If he has defied the church laws to such an extent, should he be excommunicated? Too harsh? So he’s allowed to remain a practicing Catholic – but no communion. What of other sacraments? Confession? Last rites?

Then again, if the church shunned every pro-choice parishioner, or every woman who once had an abortion, or every man who condoned a female’s right to choose, it would end up with a severely diminished congregation – a problem it faces as it is.

And upon closer inspection, moral distinctions become even murkier. What about parishioners who vote for a pro-choice candidate not because of an abortion stance but because he or she offers more affordable health care for their children, or because the candidate vows to end a senseless war?

And what about pro-life politicians who, almost without exception, rigorously endorse the death penalty, another “mortal sin”? Or those who advocate torturing suspected enemies? While we’re at it, I don’t know of any admitted pedophile clergyman who has been denied communion – or those who continually abetted them, either.

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan was a Catholic, and his vote helped decide Roe v Wade in 1973. Pope Paul VI had nothing to say about him, as far as I could dig up, nor did D.C. Archbishop Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle. Brennan retained his right to take communion, and presumably also last rites since in 1997 his funeral mass was held at St. Mathew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C.

And what about those who have sex before marriage or use contraception? Pope John Paul II deemed both acts “intrinsically evil“, and Pope Benedict XVI has since conceded the teaching to be “unchangeable.”

Those lines could become pretty short at communion time.

Yet Pope Benedict didn’t refuse to serve communion to Giuliani. How could he? Although Giuliani took communion at St. Patricks, during a mass attended primarily by clergy, the following day the Pope held mass for 60,000 at Yankee Stadium. Should everyone have been asked their stance on abortion before the Eucharist was lifted to their mouths?

If believing in the legality of abortion – or further, propagating this belief and working to one individual or whole communities gain or maintain access to abortion – is such a deal-breaker, again – why is this spoken of only in select instances, and only during an election cycle?

Because to consistently condemn congregants based on this criteria-even if possible-would decimate the church. Its prevalence and power would shrink. And that, above all else, cannot be allowed.

So it’s a mortal sin. Just like contraception. So much so that we will block reproductive health measures to fight AIDS in Africa in order to prevent the use of life-saving contraception. However, it’s not so much of an issue that we will risk losing much of our flock over it.

Then again, why should someone be turned away from a religion for sinning? Isn’t that the whole point? If someone, especially someone engaged in what your religion considers to be sinful life choices, wants to be an active member of your church, to listen to your clergy’s sermons, to worship with you, shouldn’t that be a good thing? If you really want to change someone’s mind or behavior, keeping that person in the fold should be the best way to do so. Wasn’t that what Jesus was all about, embracing the sinner?

Or maybe it’s not about casting out mortal sinners, maybe it’s the public chastising that’s important. The standing on a chair in a dunce hat humiliation – giving satisfaction to those who see themselves as morally superior, as those who truly deserve communion.

After all, how many behaviors can be criteria for removal from the church without disseminating the church itself?

And if you want to talk about human acts that would deign one unworthy of partaking in something holy…well, the Pope himself is hardly exculpable.

Catholics for Free Choice, a self described “independent not-for-profit organization engaged in research, policy analysis, education, and advocacy on issues of gender equality and reproductive health,” conducted a poll during the 2004 US presidential election and found that 53% of Catholics identified themselves as pro-choice and 61% believed abortion should be legal.

The organization’s splinter group, Catholics in Political Life: Challenges to Faith in Democracy uses the church’s own teachings to open the debate about abortion and gender issues:

1. Catholic teaching regards the well-formed conscience, not catechism or statements by bishops, as the final arbiter in moral decision making.

2. Recent teachings of the church acknowledge that it does not know when a fetus becomes a person so it cannot state explicitly that abortion is murder. However, there is no doubt about the personhood of a pregnant woman, and the protections that the hierarchy would grant to fetal life should be extended to include women facing difficult or unsupportable pregnancies. Not only that, but for those who do think that abortion is killing, the church does permit killing in certain instances, some military conflicts being a prime example.

3. The church has not made its teachings on abortion infallible. As recently as 1995, in Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II and his advisers considered and rejected the inclusion of the adjective “infallible” to describe its teaching on abortion.

4. The Catholic system of probabilism supports Catholics’ right to dissent from church teachings if there is a solid probability that the teaching is wrong and that this belief is supported by theologians or that the dissent is informed by prayerful and thoughtful discovery.

Read the rest here.

Go into any mass on any Sunday morning across the US, and you’ll see a group of flawed individuals, most of whom haven’t been cleansed by confession in a long time, step forward and take “the body of Christ.”

If Cardinal Egan really wanted to reduce the number of abortions, even without advocating contraception use or extramarital sex, there are plenty of ways he could have used his tenure as NYC Archbishop to do so. As it is, he will likely retire within the year, having submitted his resignation to the Pope, as required, upon his 75th birthday.

His legacy is marked by improving the archdiocese’s financial standing by closing 15 schools and 21 parishes, having an imperious demeanor, and weathering a nasty 2006 lawsuit alleging sex abuse cover-up and a closeted (sexually active) Egan.

According to Rocco Palmo, an American-based writer for The Tablet, the international Catholic weekly published in London, priests under Egan had serious problems with his leadership:

Long-simmering tensions among a broad cross-section of the archdiocese’s priests broke into the open today with the circulation of an anonymous letter under the authorship of a group calling itself “A Committee of Concerned Clergy for the Archdiocese of New York.” Saying that, “At no time has the relationship between the Ordinary and the priests of the Archdiocese been so fractured and seemingly hopeless as it is now,” the authors have urged their confreres to lodge “a formal vote of ‘NO Confidence‘” (emphases original) in Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who became archbishop in 2000. Using strong language throughout the 950-word missive, the authors allege a widespread finding that Egan’s relationship with his priests has been “defined by dishonesty, deception, disinterest and disregard.”

Running his mouth about which Catholic is worthy of communion does little for his supposed cause and, in my opinion, nothing for to rectify his reputation or improve the good he might leave behind him.


Pontifical Secret: Update

April 18, 2008

In my former post I wrote about Pope Benedict’s comments on sexual abuse in the Catholic church and remarked that the Vatican refused requests for the Pope to meet with victims. Yesterday, Pope Benedict held an unannounced and private meeting with “five or six” Boston-area survivors.

Those who met with the pontiff spoke on CNN last night about the experience, and all felt the Pope to be both sincerely concerned and deeply apologetic. This includes Olin Horne who, abused as an altar boy, remained skeptical prior to the meeting. According to Reuters he said

I am not kowtowing. I will not kiss his ring. If we walk in and we’re served a large plate of platitude, I can be guaranteeing you that I will be the first person to say that this man does lack the moral authority to manage the Catholic Church. I expect more than an apology when I leave that room.

Speaking to CNN after the meeting Horne said

My hope was restored today from what I heard. And I believe we received a promise.

It is unclear what that promise was, however. Joelle Casteix, regional Director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), recognizes the significance of the meeting, yet feels that, more than words, action is most needed.

“This is a small, long-overdue step forward on a very long road. We’re confident the meeting was meaningful for the participants, and we’re grateful that these victims have had the courage to come forward and speak up.

But fundamentally, it won’t change things. Kids need action. Catholics deserve action. Action produces reform, and reform — real reform — is sorely needed in the church hierarchy.”

The very secrecy of the event itself has drawn criticism. An NPR piece notes

…some of those who were abused said it would hurt more to find out about a private meeting after the fact. One victim said it had been secrets and closed doors that allowed the clergy sexual abuse to happen in the first place.

For those survivors who’ve trekked to Rome in failed efforts to meet John Paul II, (none of whom were invited to the meeting) the event must have seemed momentous. However, as stated by Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who has represented hundreds of victims, “He certainly will need more than a half hour to understand the pain victims are feeling because of being sexually abused by priests.”

SNAP director David Clohessy is distressed by the way the Pope’s meeting and statements are being applauded by the community. Responding to comments by Bishop William Murphy, Clohessy stated

How utterly tragic that even now, after 5,000+ priests have molested tens or even hundreds of thousands of children, Murphy can’t even admit that he and his colleagues have engaged in a decades-old, horrific, deliberate cover up of these devastating child sex crimes.

His remark that ‘there may have been some bishops that mishandled’ this on-going crisis is perhaps the most distressing public comment uttered by a Catholic official in recent years.

In a way, this meeting may have done more for the pontiff’s image than it did in any practical sense for the current survivors and future victims of this unforgivable crime. SNAP recommends a “prudent vigilance” on the part of parents and parishners. Time will tell if the Vatican is “ashamed” enough to do what is right.

Further Reading:

“Pontifical Secret” Why the Pope Isn’t Ashamed Enough Blackbird post from 4/17/08

Deliver Us From Evil – Award-winning documentary on “the most notorious pedophile priest in the modern history of the Catholic church.” Hundreds of victims. Covered up for 40 years. WATCH this trailer!

Hand of God – Documentary on one family’s journey of healing in the wake of sexual abuse and widespread cover up in Boston. Watch online for free.

SNAP Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests – The nation’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims.

Letter from SNAP to UN General Assembly outlining the damaging actions & inactions of Pope Benedict XVI.

Bishop Accountability – Documenting the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. Info on over 3,000 priests.

“Pontifical Secret” Why the Pope Isn’t Ashamed Enough

April 15, 2008

Image from

Today Pope Benedict XVI made a statement to reporters aboard the papal plane “Shepard One”, on its way to Washington D.C. for the first of a six-day US visit. Speaking about the sexual molestation, assault, and rape perpetrated by clergy upon children he said

[i]t is a great suffering for the church in the United States, for the church in general and for me personally that this could happen. If I read the stories of these victims, it is difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give love of God to these children. We are deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future.

There are several reasons why this statement is inadequate, insulting, duplicitous, and injurious.

  • “…the church in the United States,” implies that the abuse is isolated. As the US endemic has generated the most publicity and causes the most legal threat, the pontiff has taken the opportunity to suggest that only American priests commit such crimes. Actually at least 17 countries have reported multiple cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen.
  • “…it is difficult for me to understand how it was possible…” Really? This implies a lack of prior awareness. However, it is well documented that in 2001 the Pope-to-be, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sent a confidential letter to all of the church’s Bishops. In it he asserted the right of the Catholic church to handle all matters of pedophilia internally (no law enforcement) and to keep all information about said inquiries sealed from the public for exactly ten years after the victim reaches his or her 18th birthday.

According to an article in The Observer, who obtained the letter in 2005,

[i]t orders that ‘preliminary investigations’ into any claims of abuse should be sent to Ratzinger’s office, which has the option of referring them back to private tribunals in which the ‘functions of judge, promoter of justice, notary and legal representative can validly be performed for these cases only by priests’.

‘Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,’ Ratzinger’s letter concludes. Breaching the pontifical secret at any time while the 10-year jurisdiction order is operating carries penalties, including the threat of excommunication.

Ten years past the 18th birthday? Decades after the abuse? Thanks to most statute of limitations, this seemingly arbitrary time frame is more than sufficient to prevent any legal action or criminal investigation into the crimes. It also prevents innumerable congregations from recognizing the potentially dangerous and predatory nature of their trusted clergy and ensures that every day children around the world will be at risk of suffering sexual molestation, assault, or rape by a man who they’ve been taught to revere, a man beyond reproach, an unquestioned authority, a supposed exemplar of God’s loving grace and Christ’s compassion.

More selective phrasing appears in the letter’s description of pedophilia as “a delict against morals…with a minor below the age of 18 years.” With? Although this could denote a lack of understanding about the true violation of sexual abuse, given many other factors it’s far more likely that the carefully-crafted word choice was calculated to imply consent, however remotely, and minimize culpability.

  • …we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future.” Yeah, how? Although seminary enrollment has recovered a bit from the sharp decline of the 60’s and 70’s, the church concedes that the number of those studying for the priesthood is not enough to replace the number of priests who die or retire each year.

Are they suddenly going to introduce some magic could-you-be-a-pedophile quiz that weeds out the bad ones so “this cannot happen” again? What about the functioning pedophile priests already out there? Are the secret inquiries supposed to ferret them out? How do you banish a priest without the publicity?

The only sincere and ethical way to “do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future” is to guarantee that any clergyman who has abused a child will be removed from the ministry and subject to criminal charges, and any member of the church found to ignore or cover up knowledge of abuse will be similarly punished. Yet this is something the church refuses to do.

And what about the children who have already suffered? The church seems to assume that suffering ends when the abuse is over, when in fact it has only begun. The long and uphill battle to heal is greatly entwined with the ability to speak about it, to finding others who’ve suffered, especially at the hands of the same abuser, to witness some sort of accountability. As the church clutches its secrecy, it denies survivors the needs of basic healing.

For most victims, this type of abuse shapes the rest of their lives. Alcoholism and drug abuse are common, psychological issues, psychosomatic symptoms, and suicides have all been linked to sexual abuse. Many victims are chained with a secret shame that they intend to take to their graves. Yet it is only when there are no more secrets that healing can begin. Part of that healing involves facing the perpetrators and the officials who allowed this to occur. It is of this last that the church truly deprives its victims – the right to be acknowledged, the very right to heal.

Yet in the face of this, the Pope pretends to be dumbfounded by the issue, feigns deep shame, and supplies useless utterances of how this won’t happen again.

The Vatican refused to comment on the 2001 letter or its internal policies regarding this issue, on the basis that the document “was not public.”

A statement by Peter Isley of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) addresses the Pope’s comments, pointing out that condemning church officials for what happens on their watch is the only way to instigate any real change.

Fixating on or condemning the ‘bad apples’ (predators) doesn’t fix the ‘barrel’ (a secretive, self-protecting clerical culture overseen by largely timid, passive, secretive, compromised bishops, who often still refuse or delay suspending predators, calling police, telling the truth).


Sadly, regardless of good intentions, there will always be predators who gravitate toward ministry. The question is “How quickly can we identify and oust them?” In many institutions, that happens quickly. In the church, it happens slowly. The reason, in part, is that virtually no bishop suffers negative consequences for shielding predators, stonewalling prosecutors, shunning victims, and deceiving parishioners.

Until that changes, predatory priests will continue to be removed after molesting 33 kids, instead of after molesting 3 kids.

In fact, even as I write this, and as Shepard One lands at Andrew’s Air Force Base, survivors gather in protest at a D.C. church where recent abuses occurred. According to the release

Catholic molestation victims to hand out fliers & hold 3 hour vigil. As Pope lands, they gather at church where recent pedophile priest worked. Despite credible sex abuse reports, they kept accused predator working for 2 years. Then, even after being suspended, priest abused a 3 year old & a 6 year old in 2004-05. Case shows that little has changed despite bishops’ claims to have reformed themselves.

The respectful request to meet with the pontiff by moderate survivor group Voice of the Faithful was scoffed at by top church officials.

According to an article in the UK’s Telegraph

The Vatican insists that any meeting with the victims would reopen old wounds, and several senior aides have indicated that they felt the matter was “now closed”.


Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope’s second-in-command, said the church had already “responded with great dignity” to the situation, and added that the “clamour created in the US around this scandal is really unbearable”.

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the prefect for the Congregation for the Clergy, said the media had “exaggerated” the issue of paedophile priests. [Em Mine]

The Pope will visit the UN on Friday and, as he is expected to chastise countries with human rights violations, SNAP has requested that the UN investigate the Vatican’s failure to provide documents in concordance with the U.N. Charter on the Protection of the Rights of Children. It is unclear yet whether they will do so.

Further Reading:

Bishop Accountability -“Documenting the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Catholic Hierarchy – Current and historical information about bishops and dioceses.

Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation Coverage of the 2002 breaking news in Boston.

Jim Hopper, PhD – Professor at Harvard Medical professor has an extremely comprehensive site with in-depth reports on child abuse, sexual abuse effects on males, research and statistics, and professional services in the MA area.

Bill Maher outrages Catholics with his “New Rules” segment in which he compares the Catholic Church to the recently raided polygamist sect in Texas. It’s extreme, pointed, and incendiary. It’s also funny and makes a good point. If you’re easily offended, don’t watch it here. And stop reading now…

From HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher April 11, 2008:

And, finally, New Rule: Whenever you combine a secretive compound, religion and weirdos in pioneer outfits, there’s going to be some child-f*cking going on. In fact, whenever a cult leader sets himself up as “God’s infallible wing man” here on earth, lock away the kids.

Which is why I’d like to tip off law enforcement to an even larger child-abusing religious cult. Its leader also has a compound. And this guy not only operates outside the bounds of the law, but he used to be a Nazi and he wears funny hats. [photo of the Pope shown]

That’s right. The Pope is coming to America this week, and, ladies, he’s single! Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Bill, you can’t be saying that the Catholic Church is no better than this creepy Texas cult! For one thing, altar boys can’t even get pregnant.”

But, really, what tripped up the “little cult on the prairie” was that they only abused hundreds of kids, not thousands all over the world. Cults get raided. Religions get parades. How does the Catholic Church get away with all of their buggery? VOLUME, VOLUME, VOLUME!

If you have a few hundred followers and you let some of them molest children, they call you a cult leader. If you have a billion, they call you “Pope.”

It’s like if you can’t pay your mortgage, you’re a deadbeat, but if you can’t pay a million mortgages, you’re Bear Stearns, and we bail you out. And that’s who the Catholic Church is, the Bear Stearns of organized pedophilia. Too big to fail.

When the – when the current Pope was in his previous Vatican job as John Paul’s Dick Cheney – he wrote a letter instructing every Catholic bishop to keep the sex abuse of minors secret until the statute of limitations ran out. And that’s the Church’s attitude: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

Which is fine. Far be it from me to criticize religion. But, just remember one thing: if the Pope was, instead of a religious figure, merely the CEO of a nationwide chain of daycare centers where thousands of employees had been caught molesting kids and then covering it up, he’d be arrested faster than you can say, “Who wants to touch Mister Wiggle?”

Standard Operating Procedure – Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib

April 11, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure, a searing documentary that takes us inside the walls of Abu Ghraib, is the latest work by filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line).

Checkout the trailer:

SOP is also a book co-penned with Philip Gourevitch, author of the shattering, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, one of the first intimate portraits of the Rwandan genocide.

This month’s New Yorker featured an excerpt from SOP entitled “Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib“. The piece centers on Military Reserve Specialist Sabrina Harman, the women who took and appeared in many of the infamous photographs that surfaced in 2004.

Having not yet seen the film or read the book, I can only tell you that the 12-page excerpt alone paints a wrenching, horrific, yet page-turning portrait of human beings under conditions of prolonged and near unimaginable stress.

The instant reaction to the abuses at Abu Ghraib is one of shock and repulsion. Members of Congress are said to have gasped at the sight of some photos. Various military personnel at the prison at that time, and certainly anyone appearing in photo, were vilified, scape-goated and replaced. The public was left to wonder how such disturbed individuals escaped notice of those around them. How were they left in charge? Congressman Nighthorse Campbell reportedly said, “I don’t know how the hell these people got into our Army.”

Morris and Gourevitch suggest that these types of questions are, at best, misguided. The New Yorker piece portrays a vivid reality where an “a few bad apples” mentality simply doesn’t fit. Instead it pulls back the curtain on an Abu Ghraib where most of the MP’s acted not out of sadistic glee, but desperate survival.

According to those assigned there, the only rule the White House set for Abu Ghraib was that there were no rules. The prison was guided by no protocol and offered its personnel no psychological support. Instead it was staffed by militia who were unprepared for live action and untrained in prisoner detention, who worked 12 hours shifts for forty days straight, and lived in cells exposed to sniper fire, while attempting to fulfill the duty of “breaking down” the enemy, without being trained on exactly how to do so.

And this wasn’t just any enemy, the enemy-by-default, the soldier in a different uniform. These enemies wore no uniforms and hid among the innocent. These enemies, the MPs were told, were the ring leaders, the American-hating extremists who would stop at nothing until another, greater 9/11 occurred. They were supposed Al-Qaeda insiders who quite probably knew of plots underway at that exact moment that we can only stop if we break them, if we get them to speak.

And this was hardly a “think for yourself” environment. It was the army, during a war, within an overcrowded military prison positioned, without precedent, in the heart of a war zone.

All of this excuses nothing. The attempt to understand the darker side of human nature doesn’t absolve those involved. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the photos. It wasn’t pretty and it’s not at all clear it was even effective.

Yet given the circumstances, it’s hard to image a more moderate or reasonable outcome than what transpired at the prison, or how the daily abuses couldn’t have become, in fact, “Standard Operating Procedure.”

It’s easy to look at the the MP’s who existed within the walls of Abu Ghraib, to point fingers and judge. But what about the administration whose lack of either foresight or concern created and perpetuated the environment that turned well-intentioned soldiers into dehumanizing tormentors?

Yes, war does this itself. Surviving war necessitates a disconnect. Dehumanizing the enemy is standard, necessary. But these were not combat troops. This was a reserve unit that was supposed to engage in peacekeeping tasks. They didn’t know what the rules should have been, and that seems to have been the point.

Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil and defense witness for Abu Ghraib guard Sgt. Chip Frederick, tells Wired Magazine that although reasons don’t eclipse culpability

[s]ituations can be sufficiently powerful to undercut empathy, altruism, morality and to get ordinary people, even good people, to be seduced into doing really bad things — but only in that situation.

Understanding the reason for someone’s behavior is not the same as excusing it. Understanding why somebody did something — where that why has to do with situational influences — leads to a totally different way of dealing with evil. It leads to developing prevention strategies to change those evil-generating situations, rather than the current strategy, which is to change the person.

Sabrina Harman, shown smiling by corpses and laughing while pointing a gun at a naked soldier’s penis, also horded candy and small toys for the children imprisoned in the lower cells with the “regular” detainees. She gave them a bit of freedom to play and an elevated status by assigning them little tasks such as helping with meal times.

She let them out to run around the tier in a pack, kicking a soccer ball, and she enlisted them to help sweep the tier and distribute meals—special privileges, reserved only for the most favored prisoners on the M.I. block. “They were fun,” she said. “They made the time go by faster.” She didn’t like seeing children in prison “for no reason, just because of who your father was,” but she didn’t dwell on that. What was the point? “You can’t feel because you’ll just go crazy, so you just kind of blow it off,” Harman said. “You can only make their stay a little bit acceptable, I guess. You give them all the candy from the M.R.E.s to make their time go by better. But there’s only so much you can do or so much you can feel.” [Em mine]

On an earlier mission, training Iraqi policemen, Sabrina bought provisions for Iraqi civilians, including a refrigerator for one family. Fellow soldiers report that she would scoop up an insect and carry it outside her tent, rather than kill it.

In Abu Ghraib, MP’s were largely on their own. When Sgt. Frederick reported concerns up the chain of command – that they had mentally ill prisoners mixed with the general population, prisoners with TB, children being held with adults, he was reminded that this was a war and told to do “whatever you have to do.”

Zimbardo explains

The military intelligence, the CIA and the civilian interrogator corporation, Titan, told the MPs [at Abu Ghraib], “It is your job to soften the prisoners up. We give you permission to do something you ordinarily are not allowed to do as a military policeman — to break the prisoners, to soften them up, to prepare them for interrogation.” That’s permission to step across the line from what is typically restricted behavior to now unrestricted behavior.

Banning extreme physical violence, authorities left psychological means to get the job done. Harman herself seemed confused at the time by the emotional damage inflicted by, for example, telling a hooded prisoner he will be electrocuted if he falls off the box upon which he must stand for hours at a time. “I knew nothing would happen to him,” she explains. In contrast with corpses and beatings and sodomy, it must have somehow made sense.

Even when a prisoner is having an obvious emotional breakdown, the general reaction seems to have been, poor guy. Glad it’s not me.

It’s not an excuse for abuses beyond the call of duty. It’s simply a hard shoulder-shake for anyone who piously shook their head and slept soundly within an assured whistle-blower fantasy of how they would have behaved differently, rallied against injustice, and changed things for the better.

Sabrina Harman herself planned to blow a few whistles. Already an avid photographer, she began to snap pictures of everything she saw at the prison in an effort to prove what went on. She felt no one would believe her without proof. She seemed to operate on conflicting levels of awareness – participating in the abuses while recognizing them as abnormal or wrong.

Late in her tour she came across a prisoner that her superior claimed had died from a heart attack. She did what had by then become normal for her, she unzipped the body bag to snap a few pictures. It was then she discovered the man had been savagely beaten to death, with bandages applied postmortem to imply medical treatment where there’d been none. It was, the article implies, the first time she stopped to consider that they were being lied to. That everything they did might not actually be for the greater good.

Harman explains after she realized what had happened, she took photos

“…to prove to pretty much anybody who looked at this guy, Hey, I was just lied to. This guy did not die of a heart attack. Look at all these other existing injuries that they tried to cover up.”

She later showed the photos as proof of the murder, but a case was never made of the issue. Harman however, was

convicted by court-martial, in May of 2005, of conspiracy to maltreat prisoners, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment, and sentenced to six months in prison, a reduction in rank, and a bad-conduct discharge.

Others in photographs were similarly disciplined. Only abuses documented by publicized photos were ever punished.

Obvious comparisons have been made to the infamous Milgram experiment and the Standford prison experiment, and both dynamics show otherwise moral and compassionate individuals, under far less stress, acting out cruel and dehumanizing behaviors even when to do so causes them a greater level of emotional pain or discomfort.

The MP’s were cogs in a larger wheel and, much like those imprisoned there, what they wanted more than anything was to simply go the hell home.

Further Reading:

The Abu Ghraib Files – Salon’s in-depth 7-part piece on the prison, including lots of pics and video.

Standard Operating Procedure – The film’s official site. Includes lots of clips from the film including officials speaking about specific photos.

The Man Who Shocked the World” – Psychology Today on the life and work of Stanley Milgram.

Philip Zimbardo’s 2007 re-creation of the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2008

April 2, 2008

April is national Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Didn’t know we had one?teal-ribbon.jpg

Here’s a little history…

SAAM sprung from the 70’s “Take Back the Night” rallies, which have a somewhat equivocal origin. Certain sources claim the first U.S. rally, kicked-off by controversial and self described “militant” feminist Andrea Dworkin, took place in 1978 when 3,000 women took to the streets of San Francisco’s red light district to protest violence in pornography. Yet, further research shows that the National Organization for Women first called women to “Take Back the Night” against violence as early as 1975.

In any event, these ideas likely fomented in co-existing pockets of feminist activity throughout the 70’s. By the 1980’s the movement – almost exclusively targeted against all forms of gender-based violence – was roaring with annual marches and by 1990, through coordination efforts led by the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA), Sexual Assault Awareness Week came into being. Finally, in 2001 the movement had grown to encompass the entire month of April and SAAM was born.

According to the NCASA:

April brings an annual opportunity to focus awareness on sexual violence and its prevention. It is also an opportunity to highlight the efforts of individuals and agencies that provide rape crisis intervention and prevention services while offering support to sexual assault survivors, victims and their families.


The National Resource Center for Youth Violence Prevention gives the following statistics.

Sexual assault involves sexual acts that are forced upon individuals against their will. These acts can be physical (such as rape or unwanted sexual touching), verbal (such as sexually abusive or threatening speech), or psychological (such as voyeurism or exhibitionism). Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault. However, women and girls are more likely than males to experience violence of this type. Sexual assault is most often committed by someone known to the victim such as a spouse, family member, co-worker, friend or acquaintance, although it can also be committed by a stranger.

  • According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), a national survey of high school students, approximately 9% of students reported having been forced to have sexual intercourse against their will in their lifetime. Female students (11.9%) were more likely than male students (6.1%) to report having been sexually assaulted.
  • Sexual violence can start very early in life. More than half of all rapes (54%) of women occur before age 18; 22% of these rapes occur before age 12.
  • The National College Women Sexual Victimization Study estimated that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 college women experienced completed or attempted rape during their college years. [Em. mine]

The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) gives these well-documented stats:

  • 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
  • College-aged women are 4 times more likely to be a victim of sexual assault.
  • Every 2 minutes someone in the United States is sexually assaulted.
  • 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
  • Only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.

Get Involved!

Although the “Day of Action” is slated for the 3rd, events are going on all month long. Most of the events are local, so check out the organizations in your area. Here are a few that are particularly active this year:

The DC Rape Crisis Center has a host of activities. Their rally is April 8th, but they have events throughout the month such as poetry slams, informational seminars, healing workshops, self-defense classes, and – my favorite – the “Dragging Out Sexual Violence Benefit Drag Show.” If you’re near the capital, don’t miss it.

As part of SAAM the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault holds SAY SO (Sexual Assault Yearly Speak Out). Described as “part vigil part performance art” it takes place in early May. Plenty of time to sign up!

RAINN has various activities. It also sponsors, along with Peace Over Violence, annual Denim Day in LA, which this year is April 23rd. Other cities and campuses across the country also have Denim Days in April.

The RAINN website explains:

In 1998, an Italian Supreme Court decision overturned a rape conviction because the victim wore jeans [rationalizing that “jeans cannot be removed easily and certainly it is impossible to pull them off if the victim is fighting against her attacker with all her force.”]. People all over the world were outraged. Wearing jeans became an international symbol of protest against erroneous and destructive attitudes about sexual assault. Last year, on Denim Day an unprecedented 300,000 people signed up to wear jeans in support of raising awareness about the need to end sexual violence. This year we aim to at least double that amount.

This day in the schools, offices and streets of Los Angeles County we unite against rape of girls, women, boys and men. We stand in support of survivors. We break the silence to end sexual violence.

On Denim Day in LA wear your jeans as a visible sign of protest against the myths that still surround sexual assault!

More information on the case via Denim Day’s site:

An 18-year old girl is picked up by her married 45-year old driving instructor for her very first lesson. He takes her to an isolated road, pulls her out of the car, wrestles her out of one leg of her jeans and forcefully rapes her. Threatened with death if she tells anyone, he makes her drive the car home. Later that night she tells her parents, and they help and support her to press charges. The perpetrator gets arrested and is prosecuted. He is convicted of rape and sentenced to jail.

He appeals the sentence. The case makes it all the way to the Italian Supreme Court. Within a matter of days the case against the driving instructor is overturned, dismissed, and the perpetrator released. In a statement by the Chief Judge, he argued, “because the victim wore very, very tight jeans, she had to help him remove them, and by removing the jeans it was no longer rape but consensual sex.”

Judge Aldo Rizzo defends the ruling in the NY Times by saying

“It should be noted that it is instinctive, especially for a young woman, to oppose with all her strength the person who wants to rape her. And it is illogical to say that a young woman would passively submit to a rape, which is a grave violence, for fear of undergoing other hypothetical and no more serious offenses to her physical safety.”

I can think of nothing to add to that comment. Can anyone really question why more awareness is needed?