Bear with me faithful readers as I combine two disparate strands of thought that sheds light on current events.
First strand: Everything in life is political. The differences are only in degrees. Second strand: Executives should never let lawyers drive policy matters.
Note the key words are political and policy, both having the Greek word polis as their roots. Too often the root word is interpreted narrowly to mean a city-state. Its larger meaning is community, people coming together to live in peace and harmony.
From that comes the need for laws to regulate human behavior, to protect the weak from predators, to seek the greatest good for the greatest number.
Unfortunately, we create myths that belie the above absolutes, such as the supposed separation of church and state. It is an ideal embedded in the Constitution. The reality is it does not reflect reality.
Incontestably, churches, because they are entities that help serve to regulate human behavior, are deeply involved in what ultimately are political issues and public policy matters. Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints makes no bones about the spiritual and the temporal being combined, though it too pays lip- service to the notion of a church and state separation by claiming it doesn’t engage in partisan politicking.
Is there anyone walking who seriously believes the leadership of the LDS Church has not in a dozen ways quietly – and fully within its First Amendment rights to do so – lent indirect support to Mitt Romney’s campaign? Was last year’s national television ad campaign aimed at expanding America’s familiarity with the LDS Church a mere coincidence?
What prompts this essay, though, is not the activities of the LDS Church on behalf of a favored son. Rather, it is the action of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane suing its long-time Spokane law firm for malpractice in representing the diocese both in settling a number of abuse-by-priest claims and in the resulting declaration of bankruptcy.
Some are shocked the diocese would turn on its long-time outside counsel, one of Spokane’s venerable, old law firms. Cynics are smiling at the actions of a corporation – which the diocese most assuredly is – with what they suspect is a bet Paine, Hamblen will settle out of court with its insurance company on the hook for perhaps half of the $12 million in damages sought.
Part of the escalating cost of health insurance is the high cost of malpractice insurance doctors and hospitals have to obtain in our highly litigious society. Now the ultimate irony is coming about: Law firms must obtain hefty malpractice insurance to protect themselves from unhappy clients.
It is the consumer, however, who pays in the end. Insurance premiums are cranked into an ever increasing hourly rate which, even in Spokane, averages $400 an hour.
The cynicism comes about when religious entities wrap themselves in piety and claim the high moral ground while acting in a political and or business-interest manner. The public rightly sees hypocrisy in such actions. No one should be surprised that it further undermines what little credibility the Spokane diocese possesses these days.
Fault both the diocese and its attorneys for not keeping their eyes on the diocesan mission. If there was an initial mistake, it goes to the second absolute postulated above, i.e., the executive, the Spokane bishop, William Skylstad (a personal friend), allowed lawyers to drive an issue that went above legal tactics. It breached the broader arena of the policy position a church is expected to understand.
Lawyers love to run things and to tell executives what they can and cannot do. They ought to tell their clients if and how they can legally do what they want to do.
In the case of the Spokane diocese, the initial error by its lawyers was convincing the bishop to go against his better instincts and invoke the statutes of limitations defense against many of the abuse claims. Rather than focus on what was right – in this case righting through an admission of guilt and making amends for the wrong that had been done – the diocese resorted to a legal defense that undercut its moral authority.
District Court Judge Kathleen O’Conner correctly handed the diocese its head on a platter. Even the Vatican’s chief legal authority, in a speech in France earlier in the decade, had called on bishops not to resort to legal legerdemain to escape responsibility for the sexual-abuse wrongs.
The result is further erosion of whatever moral authority the diocese has left. The rudder is again being held by different lawyers who counsel a questionable path to extract money from an insurance firm that otherwise would have to be hijacked from the faithful in the pews.
So the end justifying the means looks political and legalistic, doesn’t it?