Current Comment: DNA evidence, Chicago scandal & a Lutheran musical

Proving Innocence by DNA

DNA evidence from hair, saliva, semen or other cell sources, has led to over 200 exonerations of wrongly convicted prisoners nationwide since 1989, according to an Innocence Project report. The 200th exoneration last April led to a national campaign to support the formation of state innocence commissions to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and develop reforms.

Of the 77 percent of cases of misidentification by eyewitnesses, almost half occurred because of cross-racial misidentification. The report notes: “Studies have shown that people are less able to recognize faces of a different race than their own.” Several dozen states have made reforms aimed at improving lineup and eyewitness procedures. Racism itself, the report observes, continues to be a significant cause of wrongful convictions. While almost 30 percent of people in prison for rape are black, 64 percent of those wrongfully convicted of this crime—and then exonerated through DNA—are black. Two-thirds of black men exonerated with the help of DNA evidence were wrongly convicted of raping white people.


Other factors affecting wrongful convictions involved the loss or destruction of evidence, so that DNA testing was impossible. In 22 states, statutes now require the preservation in some way of evidence in criminal cases. The now numerous exoneration cases, the project says, show that wrongful convictions are not isolated events: they arise for the most part from systemic defects that can be identified and addressed.

Sin and Scandal

The crisis of sexual abuse by members of the clergy goes on. Despite the Dallas Charter (passed by the U.S. bishops in 2002), awareness programs, monitoring and assessment, convictions and payments to victims and bankruptcies, notorious cases keep coming to light. One of the latest is that of Donald J. McGuire, a Chicago Jesuit, who was convicted in Wisconsin in 2006 of five counts of sexually assaulting a minor, but who is alleged to have engaged in similar violations for decades. It is especially alarming that McGuire’s misconduct continued even after the “zero tolerance” policy established in the Dallas Charter.

Personal and institutional failure seems to have been widespread. The repeated inability to identify and confront cases of abuse must be addressed. With all we have learned and all we have tried to do, still further lessons need to be learned and better practices put in place.

The story is complex, but there is no question that McGuire’s superiors and brother religious, and possibly some of his lay supporters, need to do a searching self-examination as to how they could have ignored what was going on for so long. Or, if they did not ignore it, how and why their responses proved ineffective. That McGuire was dismissed from the Society of Jesus only after the case was picked up by the media illustrates how canonical processes intended to prevent hasty judgments may fail both the victims and religious superiors when they try to act responsibly. That the Wisconsin court did not revoke McGuire’s recent parole—after his superiors warned that they could not control him—until his case received nationwide publicity makes clear that failure is shared by authorities outside the church. When all is said and done, this and other cases demand from those who failed to hold the perpetrator accountable a contrite confession: Mea culpa.

Church Basement Ladies

A pastor and four women volunteer cooks (one a college student) who serve at every church funeral, wedding reception, holiday and social prove to be quite hilarious in “Church Basement Ladies,” a musical comedy by Jessica Zuehlke and Jim Stowell (music and lyrics by Drew Jansen) that opened in 2005 at The Plymouth Playhouse in Minneapolis. But this year’s run may mark a turning point for the show. Based on the best-selling book Growing Up Lutheran: What Does It Mean?, the musical has played to sold-out audiences and grossed nearly $600,000 in its first three months. This year, though, the producer booked it for a 50-city regional tour to test whether the play, with its 1960s church setting and Midwestern, Norwegian humor, would appeal to a wider audience.

Whether the play reaches Broadway or not, the content has much to recommend it, especially to churchgoers. As these stalwarts poke fun at themselves and others at East Cornucopia Lutheran Church, they touch on such serious subjects as the difficulty of accepting change in the church, the depth of longtime friendship, the need to mentor the young, intermarriage between Lutherans and Catholics, the role of food in forming a community and the importance of humble dedication to whatever one does at the parish. When Willy, the ever-present church janitor and bell-ringer (who is never seen, only alluded to), dies, the pastor’s effort to write his eulogy provides the most moving song and moment in the play. So far, the play’s popularity shows that church people—at least in the Midwest—enjoy laughing at themselves. That is not just good news; such laughter is redeeming.

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