Friday, January 12, 2007

Snitching among the clergy?

Warning: This blog post contains pure speculation generated as part of a thought exercise. Take the comments, in that vein, for what they're worth.

Regular readers know I've long tracked various snitching scandals on Grits and think the practice is a frequently abused and inherently abusive aspect of the American justice system that needs to be curtailed.

Without question the use of informants is a crucial, nearly indispensible tool for law enforcement. But especially when used to investigate petty or victimless crimes, or when informants are self-interested or unreliable, snitching can also undermine not just faith in the justice system but the very bonds of trust and loyalty that underlie all positive human relations. Prof. Sasha Natapoff has calculated that one in 12 young black men returning from prison might be informants for law enforcement at any given time.

To see how widespread use of informants can corrupt public life and civil society, it's worth looking at what, at least before the USA's War on Drugs, was the most extensive informant system the world had ever seen: Communist secret police in Russia and Eastern Europe. Christianity Today has published an article about a new Polish archbishop who collaborated with the Communist secret police in that country while it was still under the yoke of Soviet control ("What to do with a former Communist informant?," 1-12):
Tomasz Terlikowski of Newsweek Polska told Polskie Radio, "This question about the past has a very real impact on Poland's present. Today we are facing this issue: Can a person who collaborated with the regime be the moral and theological authority for a whole diocese? From what we learned about Archbishop Wielgus, his collaboration might have meant as many as 20 years of informing the Communist regime about what was happening in the church. And the main aim of the Communists was the destruction of the church."

Some estimates say that 15 percent of the church leaders in Poland — seen as a cornerstone of resistance against communism — cooperated with the secret police. One memo from 1978, for example, counted 12 Polish bishops among the security service's collaborators.

Those are big numbers, and such a widespread practice makes me wonder if ministers are commonly used as informants in American policing? I wonder if any ministers during the civil rights movement, for example, ever got caught up in the informant racket the way Catholic priests did in Poland? Or have ministers in the pro-life movement been pressured to "flip" and inform on activist members of their flock? Have US Catholic priests been pressured to identify undocumented immigrants among their parishioners? I don't know, I've never really thought about it or researched it, but I'll bet they have.

People tell their ministers things they'd tell no one else, and in theory a priest-penitent privilege provides protection for those conversations. But if police can find leverage to coerce a minister into cooperating - anything from overlooking criminal acts to agreeing not to expose extramarital affairs, or even flat out paying for information - it doesn't seem far fetched to me to think officers might play that card as part of an investigation. Whether a minister succumbs would essentially be a question of individual character.

No conclusions to be drawn here, only questions raised. But I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for more on this angle as I continue to study the topic of police informant use.


Anonymous said...

The FBI, since Hoover's inception of it, has been predominately an espionage agency. They distinguish between evidence, which can be used in court, and 'intel', which they illegally obtained from wiretaps, bugs, or 'black bag jobs' (burglaries).

A telling example of the FBI's preference for collecting dirt rather than evidence became obvious when 'Deep Throat' was revealed to be Mark Felt, and that everything he leaked to Woodward and Bernstein came from FBI files. Now that we know the FBI knew about Nixon's schemes (by committing espionage against the White House), consider how many people the FBI prosecuted all told: none. All the incriminating evidence that came up in the Watergate hearings came from outside federal law enforcement. The FBI witheld damning evidence from the prosecution.

So, now that you understand it is SOP for law enforcement to collect 'intel' and to use the dirt to blackmail people, take a fresh look at your questions.

Anonymous said...

Lots of snitches in the civil rights movement, ministers and otherwise.