The National Catholic Review
Peter J. Riga
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I used to be a priest, a minister of the Gospel, but I left the priesthood, went to law school and became a lawyer. The other day, as I waited my turn to go before the judge in one of my cases in the criminal courts building here in Houston, I was struck by some fundamental similarities between my former and present professions. They follow different paths but their ends are substantially the same: the good of the client/penitent. This dawned on me as I watched defendant after defendant plead, be set for trial, bargain with the prosecutor, appeal to the mercy of the court and be represented by an advocate-lawyer. I also watched the imposing of fines, community service and jail. Some defendants expressed repentance as they faced the victim they had made through their crime.

The work of the lawyer can seem routine and monotonous as the courts hurry defendants through in order to clear their dockets. Court personnel are efficient but not very compassionate or understanding, while prosecutors are busy reducing their caseloads and bargaining with attorneys to avoid trials as much as possible, since otherwise the whole system could come to a grinding halt.

Most of the defendants I have encountered were guilty. The evidence was greatly in their disfavor, but they often took it all in stride, since many of them had been there before. The recidivism rate here in Harris County is about 65 percent, mostly because the defendants generally cannot find jobs after they are released. They are trained for nothing productive, so they go back to what they know best: stealing and burglary. The chances of their being caught multiply in proportion to the number of thefts they commit. It is the law of averages. Fortunately most of the crimes are nonviolent, and therefore few of the prisoners are behind bars for long. But since there are no programs focused on the prisoners, and no training for real jobs when they get out, the recidivism rate is indeed high.

But as I considered all this, I knew I was simply a part of that system myself, making a living as a cog in the wheel that continues to turn as it deals with broken men and women. They were broken when they enteredfully half the prisoners have mental problems to start withand the system does very little to assist them. They are put away for a while to protect the public; but they are bound to be released, and often they are worse than when they entered. Prison seems to be a graduate school for crime, where some learn more efficient ways of evading and breaking the law.

At an earlier time, as a minister of the Gospel, I was an advocate, an intercessor, a counselor, a confidant, a reconciler, a peacemaker, a person to whom penitents could confide without fear of betrayal. All of a sudden, I realized that that is exactly what I am doing, or at least should be doing, as a lawyer, but in a different way. If I were not doing so, I would be failing in my professional duties as a lawyer and as a Christian engaged in the law. I found the parallel striking.

As an advocate, I try to make the best possible case for my client, always being truthful and honest with the court. If a lawyer loses his credibility, he loses everything. I would emphasize the good points of my client and the real possibilities (under adequate conditions) of rehabilitation. It was my duty to seek the good of my client, to help him or her find a better way, frequently with the help of the meager services available in the system. I would try to enlist prison ministries (there are some good ones in the county) and church groups for help. I would also plead with employers to give my clients an opportunity.

In other words, advocacy goes beyond appearing in court, collecting a fee and having done with it. It involves reaching out to the larger community for assistance, speaking on my client’s behalf to employers and others who could be of service. That kind of effort takes a lot of unpaid time on my part. But it makes me feel good to be actually helping human beings, rather than just being another moneymaker. It requires visits to the incarcerated and follow-ups after release. I realize I am not a social worker, but I am a minister of law, with the ministry of caring for people.

I used to do the same thing as a priest when counseling people, encouraging them, holding their confidences, directing them to good help when their problems were beyond my expertise. I had to know the difference, and that was difficult at times. Above all, I was their advocate in loco Christi at the altar and in my prayers. A priest is a man of prayer who believes in another, invisible reality. Similarly, the priest/minister is essentially an advocate for all his parishioners, and his life is dedicated to them 24 hours a day.

As a lawyer, I am also a counselor and confidant. I keep the secrets of my clients because, like a priest, I would not be trusted otherwise. The client must be completely honest with me; otherwise I cannot help him. As in consulting doctors, you must tell them your symptoms, or they will be unable take care of you. The diagnosis really depends a lot on you. I work with the client to show how he can avoid those occasions that led to criminality, how to seek help for addictions. I have a Rolodex full of professionals in various fields on whom I can call for help. I did that as a priest, and I had the freedom to help in every way I could.

I am a consoler and friend, perhaps the last friend the client has in this world. If he insists on drinking, taking drugs, running around in bad company or disobeying the orders of the court, he must desist or find another advocate, because I will not tolerate any disregard of court orders or directions. A good friend, as they say, does not allow a friend to drive drunk. But a good friend must insist that the other not drive drunk, because to give in on that is to endanger not only the drinker but also yourself.

The priest/minister is essentially a friend to the sinner, whom he can never abandon. Yet the penitent must seek to help himself and try to do better. It is what we call a firm purpose of amendment, because without that effort, there is no true sorrow for what he has done. He may fall again and again, but he must make the effort to rise and keep on trying. God does not ask perfectiononly that we persevere.

In sum, I seek what is best for my client. And what does that mean? Not necessarily that he be released or not go to prisonalthough that is the last tough-love possibility open to him. Prison is a last option, but it is an option because it can be a shock that might awaken him. I must try in every way to avert this, but in the end it is the judge’s decision, not mine.

But if the judge sentences the client to prison, it is my solemn duty to:

see if there are grounds for appeal and prosecute them;

promise that no matter what happens, I will be there for him;

visit him in prison if possible; if not, to write once in a while;

emphasize that a stay in prison may be a time of repentance, rethinking and a new beginning. He should not be fooled by a superficial finding of Jesus (all prisoners get Jesus in prison but then lose him quickly when they get out), but he must seriously think over what he has done and how he can correct his ways when he is released. He should seek out the chaplain for further guidance;

direct him to ministry or any job training available in prison so he does not just fritter away his time until release.

Both court and the ministry of the word are defined by mercy. Mercy is that acknowledgement of human weakness as well as the grandeur of the One who has mercy. It is not that justice is neglected, but in mercy we go beyond justice alone. At The Hague, behind the bench of the justices of the International Court of Justice, is written: Let the seats of justice be filled with virtuous men and women, but not so virtuous that they forget what human frailty is. We must protect the common good, but we must be mindful that every one of us needs compassion and mercy so that we have the courage to return to the path of virtue and justice.

Obviously, a criminal attorney who follows this ministry is not going to become rich. But he or she will earn a reputation for honesty, integrity and truthfulness, and that in itself is invaluable. The attorney’s life will be fuller, richer, his sense of honor and duty will be increased, and above all, he or she won’t burn out in 10 to 15 years. Burnout is a plague for attorneys. The remedy is the spiritual force that inhabits his soul as a professionala spiritual inspiration that keeps him alive.

In these ways, ministry of the Gospel and ministry of the law are similar, even if they follow different roads to reach the same goal: the good of the client/penitent. Both are vocations. And viewed as vocations, each will be kept spiritually alive to the very end.

Peter J. Riga is an attorney in Houston, Tex.