Songs of Shame

Slay and Rigali arias soured by lack of decisive action and bully-boy politics

Mar 20, 2002 at 4:00 am
You might give some serious thought to the sizzle-but-no-steak similarity between two recently orchestrated events. Both featured major soloists of the city's leadership troupe, addressing splashy scandals in their respective fiefdoms.

The first took place during a Saturday Mass at Most Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Florissant, a still-smoking crater in the priests-as-child-sex-predators scandal that has been smart-bombing parishes in Boston, here and elsewhere across the country.

On March 9, St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali stepped to the pulpit where the Rev. John Hess presided until FBI agents seized his computer as part of a child-pornography investigation.

In strong tones of churchly authority, Rigali read from a letter posted at parishes across the archdiocese. He condemned "this deplorable violation of those most innocent and vulnerable among us," promised heightened vigilance and action and defended a more stringent policy that prohibits the reassignment of any priest with a "substantiated charge of abuse of a minor" to any ministry where children are present.

Now punch your rewind button until images of a full-dress press conference by Mayor Francis Slay snap into focus. St. Francis of City Hall looked crisp and tough as he announced sharp punishment for seven corrections officers and managers he deemed responsible for the escape of five felons from the suicide-plagued, escape-prone city workhouse. Among the knuckle-cracked and suspended were public-safety director Ed Bushmeyer, one of the few truly savvy wiseheads in his administration, and corrections commissioner Dora Schriro.

On the surface, the separate solos of the city's top elected official and most important clergyman seem like note-perfect PR performances, straight from the crisis-management score -- get your principal out in front of a major scandal; have him make a strong, bold statement in the glare of the TV lights; apologize and promise to zealously clean up the mess in question; back it all up with decisive action; answer all questions in a full and frank fashion.

Ahem. Slight problem with this Pavarotti-and-Domingo PR act, boys.

Neither tenor was truly out in front of his scandal. Neither Slay nor Rigali answered any and all queries thrown his way. Both dodged tiny hang-fire issues of inquisition such as:

· The total number of priests who have been rehabilitated and reassigned after preying on children for sex in the past 15 years; full disclosure of their records to present-day parishioners, here and elsewhere; and the tally of major diocese bucks rolled out for lawsuit settlements during that time. Such candor would restore the trust of the faithful.

· The unsightly image of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce having to beg for a sit-down to make sure priests accused of sexual wrongdoing have not been improperly shielded from the full prosecutorial scrutiny given everyday citizens. Such groveling is unbecoming to Joyce and only reinforces the notion that the church is above the law.

· The idiocy of chopping the credibility of the very woman brought to City Hall to clean up the corrections department instead of having her up on the podium with you and giving her stern marching orders for the cameras to record. Such a daunting task demands the verbal prestidigitation of a Professor Irwin Corey.

As Riverfront Times writer Bruce Rushton notes, Slay blew a chance to look both mayoral and smart ["Getting What You Pay For," March 6]. Instead, St. Francis showed the jakeleg shakes of a media grandstander in search of a pixel fix.

Hizzoner's choir robe of purity was further muddied by the rank political overtone of the Bushmeyer whack -- dang that green-eyed monster that grips chief of staff Jeff Rainford every time he thinks about ol' Ed and his superior management chops [D.J. Wilson, "Perfect Attendance but No Presence," March 6].

But grudges aren't the only curdled melodies in the mayor's songbook. Since taking office, Slay has shown an unseemly taste for thugball politics. He has repeatedly let slip the leash on his dogs of sleaze and bullydom -- Rainford and the shadow golem of City Hall, Richard Callow, a.k.a. the Inside of Jerry Berger's Brain.

From the homosexual sinuendo of using the Rev. Maurice Nutt police-board scandal [D.J. Wilson, "Too Good to Be True," Jan. 16] to warn off closeted rivals of political allies to the race-baiting of Cardinal stadium opponent state Rep. Jim Murphy by Rev. Earl Nance, the mayor's part-time education liaison, there doesn't seem to be a gutter the mayor won't drag a rival through. Or a flea-ridden dog he won't curl up with.

In the midst of all this ceaseless political squalor, there are some truly delicious moments -- such as Rainford's defense to Speedloader last week of the tag-team game he and mayoral mouthpiece Ed Rhode recently ran on another stadium opponent, evangelist Larry Rice, when his shelter for homeless men caught fire.

Said Rainford, defending Rhode after Rice sued him for calling his shelter a firetrap: "We're sending a message to Rev. Rice and other bullies that we're not going to roll over every time someone holds their breath and stomps their feet."

Pot. Kettle. Black.

But it's hard to find any humor in the latest blood-letting that came to light last week -- the public humiliation of Craig Heller because he had the temerity to banner a rival alternative to the mayor's blueprint for renovating the Old Post Office. Heller, the darling of the downton loft-dwelling set, and his partner, Kevin McGowan, got blackjacked by a mayoral death squad led by Callow and his girlfriend, deputy mayor Barb Geisman.

Not only did they paper-whip Heller, scare his partners and rattle his financial stakehorses, they made him sign a press release that is the rhetorical equivalent of being stripped naked under the Gateway Arch and having rotten crow meat jammed down his craw.

Although some of this can be chalked up as the rough discipline any big-city mayor must administer and Heller's own 11th-hour foolishness, this bludgeoning seems more like an exercise in the politics of extreme vengeance.

No New Urbanism nonsense for this mayor. Nothing and nobody outside the tight ring of money-brokers, lawyers and bond-writers who always feast at the trough of big-ticket building projects that always promise more than they deliver.

Although Rigali shows little of Slay's taste for political evisceration, he also failed to hit the high notes of his solo.

He kept out of sight until the flame of outrage and angst singed the pointy top of his mitre, content to issue short statements from on high until the day after he was excoriated by the Pulitzers' favorite pulp product.

And other than his why-didn't-you-do-this-before decision to no longer reassign pedophile priests to posts where children are present, the archbishop has failed to adopt programs and policies enacted by other archdioceses across the country, including the one just across the river in Belleville, Ill., which has set up a victims'-advocate office.

Mouthpieces for the archdiocese make much ado about an advisory board charged with reviewing priestly sex-abuse complaints, a mixed body of clerics, psychological professionals and parents put in place well before the current scandals hit.

But David Clohessy, local leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a.k.a. SNAP, says this outfit is about as toothless as a citizen's-review board without subpoena power and the ability to levy punishment against rogue cops. The efficacy of the board is also neutered by the gatekeepers who decide which cases get reviewed, he says; those guardians happen to be priests.

Worse yet, says Clohessy, victims bringing sex-abuse complaints against priests are still being met with coldness and intimidation.

In an unintentional way, the well-lit but off-key warblings of the archbishop and the mayor-who-would-be-saintly do more to remind folks of the clannish, vengeance-tinged politics that plague this deeply Catholic town than to signal an open embrace of reform and new ideas.

Listen to Clohessy: "We're certainly not the most forthright community when it comes to facing hard, painful issues.... We tend to fritter around the edges of problems, hoping they'll go away."

The songs of Hizzoner and the high cleric flat-out fail to pipe in a willingness to abandon the deep and toxic rut of the way things have always been done in St. Louis. Without that willingness, there is no counterbalance to gutterball thuggery and random acts of autocratic hostility and intimidation.

Without that, the way it is appears to be the cheapjack way it ever shall be.

The faithful deserve better. So do the citizens of St. Louis.