We Have the Right to an Attorney: Both the U.S. Government's Resort to Military Tribunals and the Church's Reluctance to Turn Pedophile Priests over to the Legal System Stem from the Same Misguided Belief That Their Noble Goals Should Exempt Them from Due Process of the Law. (Culture in Context)

Article excerpt

EVERY WEEK ON NEARLY EVERY PRIME-TIME COP show there comes a moment during the interrogation scene when the suspect or perp turns to our heroic police officers and utters that most unwelcome of phrases: "I want to see a lawyer."

Grimaces spread across the faces of the detectives of NYPD Blue or any of the Law & Order franchises, knowing as they do that even the most inept defense attorney is going to impede their crime-fighting process. The interrogation will grind to a halt, and any hoped-for confession will be stillborn or tossed on a technicality. The very thought of a lawyer coming into the room threatens to spoil the party. And, because we watch these shows through the eyes of cops and prosecutors, most of us are secretly pleased when a clever detective maneuvers the perp into withdrawing this demand.

Recent events indicate that it's not just TV cops and prosecutors who don't want a lawyer coming in the room and mucking up their process. Neither the White House nor the church seems too eager to have an attorney looking over their shoulder, making certain they're following due process or acting in everyone's best interests.

Last November President Bush announced that Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay would be tried and sentenced by a special military tribunal operating outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. In this tribunal defendants would be stripped of a number of the rights, protections, and safeguards granted those facing trial in a criminal court or even in an ordinary court martial. Now the press is inundating us with stories of cardinals and bishops who for decades decided not to report or hand over accused pedophiles to civil authorities, but to investigate and resolve these cases under a shroud of secrecy and silence.

Both the executive branch and the bishops seem to prefer handling these delicate matters as in-house affairs, with no outside parties criticizing the way they punish or prosecute the guilty and protect the innocent. That's not good news for us as citizens or Catholics.

On November 13 the president issued an executive order calling for military tribunals that would try and sentence prisoners of the war in Afghanistan, and though America's war on terror was to be an international affair, these special tribunals would not be. Even as the U.S. pressured Bosnia to hand over war criminals to the United Nations' war-crimes tribunal in the Hague, the White House announced it would tolerate neither international nor domestic oversight of its prosecution of the captives being held in Cuba. Neither the international community, Congress, the courts, nor the constitution was going to impede the swift and deliberate justice the White House had planned for the men the president had publicly branded as "killers."

Only the executive branch would have the authority to determine whether they were prisoners of war or war criminals, and only the executive branch would act as their judge, jury, and executioner. And if anything went wrong, the former governor of the capital of capital punishment--a man convinced that no innocent person was ever executed in Texas--would serve as the detainees' only and last court of appeal.

IN THE MONTHS THAT FOLLOWED, A CHORUS OF JURISTS, governments, and international organizations attacked the president's decision, criticizing it as a violation of the very freedoms supposedly being defended by America's war on terror. Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called upon the U.S. to recognize the detainees in Guantanamo Bay as prisoners of war and hand them over to a competent international tribunal. This challenge was echoed by the vast majority of European governments and the Organization of American States. Human rights groups have blasted the decision to deny prisoners any appeal to civilian courts. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, this policy does "not respect basic American or international notions of fairness and justice," while Amnesty International has argued that these "military commissions threaten to severely undermine, rather than reinforce, confidence in the administration of justice and the maintenance of the rule of law. …