A Question for the Lenten Season: Is Forgiveness for Anyone Who Asks? Apparently Not.

IT MAKES SENSE TO ME

By Larry Peterson

Lent is here. I  sit in front of this keyboard with the current memory of ashes smeared across my forehead. The season of Repentance and Forgiveness followed by  Redemption is once again upon us. The ashes remind us of our mortality. We all know in our hearts that we will  surely die one day. Just like the adulterous woman in the Gospel reading (John 8: 2-11) we want to be FORGIVEN for all the bad things we have done in our lifetimes. When we do make that final journey we desperately want our final destination to be heaven.

That is why God became man, isn’t it? So all of us would have the chance to reach that final destination.  That is why he came and lived among us and taught us how to live. That is why He allowed Himself to be beaten and tortured and finally killed by being nailed to a cross. This is Lent–and, once again, we prepare. But what about that key to redemption called the “Golden Rule“? Does it not apply to everyone? It seems to me it is supposed to. Do I have this all wrong? Has the sex scandal that rocked our beloved Church turned it into a Bi-forgiveness institution? Do we forgive and not-forgive depending upon the sin?

I live in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, FL. I have been an EMHC (Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion) for over 20 years. Bringing Holy Communion to the sick and home bound is a great joy. Five years ago I (and all those who serve in this ministry) were  required to attend “Safe Environment  Training” and undergo a Level II background check. This included having your fingerprints run through the FBI database. Now all of us who went through that are “required” to do it again. Why? Who knows. I assumed fingerprints lasted longer than five years. Just run them again, right?  I wish it were that simple.

So, I am going through my certification and paperwork from five years ago and I come across the “47 List”  (I call it the “47 List”, just me). This is a list of different offenses as described under Florida Statutes that the Diocese of St. Petersburg uses to determine eligibility for employment or volunteer positions. If a person who is applying for a position that would place them near minors or vulnerable adults happens to fit the profile of one of the 47 sections, they enter the ranks of the “Unforgiven”. They are the people that become “Persona non grata”, permanently, aka Zero Tolerance

Many of these laws have to do with sexual abuse and many do not. Many have to do with charges that can be ambiguous. Here is an example: Section 843.01; relating to resisting arrest with violence.  If a police officer tries to arrest you and you take a swing at him you can be charged with violating this statute. Makes sense, right? When  Zero Tolerance is plugged into the equation nothing else matters. It is over. ZERO means ZERO–NOTHING. This is my dilemma. I hate Zero Tolerance.

Every person is different and every action is different. If someone walks up to me and shoots me in the head I can be killed. If I walk across the street against the light and get hit by a car I can be killed. In both cases my being dead is the same. But the reasons were  different. The shooter who killed me can get the death penalty or life in prison. The driver of the car was not responsible for my behavior and goes on about his/her life. Zero Tolerance would put the driver in the same category as the shooter.

Case in point: A young man I know for many years by the name of  Eddie (not his real name) has a learning disability. When he was 19, Eddie and a few friends had to much to drink. Eddie passed out and his friends propped him in a sitting position against the back wall of a local restaurant. They took magic markers and, being goofy, drew all over his face and arms etc. Then they left him there and headed home (Nice friends). Patrons leaving the restaurant saw him and reported him to the manager who promptly called the police.

The police arrived and saw this large, (he is a big guy) young man sleeping against the back of the building. Shining their flashlights on him they saw the magic marker scribbled all over him. They shook him to wake him and he did not respond. Then they shook him harder and yelled for him to wake up. The touch of the firm hand on his shoulder startled Eddie. He woke up and swung at the officer hitting him in the shoulder. He was promptly “subdued”, handcuffed and arrested for violation of section 843.01: resisting arrest with violence. Off to the county jail he went.

The police were only doing their job. If I were they I would have been super cautious too. Eddie had been a foolish 19 year old. The fact is, he was just frightened and instinctively lashed out to protect himself. Having only a vague recollection of what had happened he pleaded “guilty” to the charges. He was given probation and some community service. To this day it is the only time in his life Eddie has been in any trouble.

We move ahead almost 15 years. A local catholic high school has an opening for a cafeteria worker. Eddie, who had a hard time finding work because of his disability, gets the job and is thrilled. He  actually starts work before his background check is complete. A few days in and his supervisor is called to the school office and told that Eddie has to leave immediately. He failed the background check and cannot be anywhere on school grounds. Eddie is stunned and leaves the school crying. That was four years ago and he still has not found a new job. He is on anti-depressants and lives with his parents. In Eddie’s case Zero Tolerance became his abuser.

Five years ago when I was attending the Safe Environment class the facilitator, in her opening remarks, told everyone a story about  a man who had been a volunteer bus driver for the school for several years. She went on to say how “fortunate and blessed” the school was to have been able to find out through the Safe Environment background check, that the man had been guilty of having a DUI 20 years earlier. He was immediately dismissed from his “volunteer job” and she was quite pleased even though the guy had been clean and sober ever since his DUI.

I was appalled and let them know it. Everyone thought I was trying to hide some personal demon in my own life. The facilitator even came over to me and, bending down close to me, said,  “We can talk later if you have some personal issues”. No one seemed to understand that I just thought it was UN-Christian to not forgive this man. I told her that she and folks like her were my issue. She did not understand nor get my point.

Look, I deplore sexual deviants and anyone who sexually harms kids and /or adults is a reprobate.   We have to protect our children and vulnerable seniors and our moms and wives and everyone from people who might harm them physically, emotionally and sexually. But is Zero Tolerance the way to go? After all, it eliminates all mitigating factors.  As a parent you might be accused of negligence for allowing your children to walk  to the park by themselves. That has happened. Should that mom be prevented from getting a job 20 years later because her name
pops up in a data bank as being charged with child neglect? Did a Zero Tolerance policy save someone from Eddie or just help destroy him?

So I guess it comes down to answering the question, Do we as followers of Christ extend  forgiveness to all people? The answer is, we should but we don’t.  Is this hypocritical? Does Zero Tolerance trump Forgiveness? If we are truly all of God’s children do not all of us deserve Forgiveness and second chances? What would happen if we replaced the words, Zero Tolerance with Golden Rule? Imagine the possibilities or am I  just a “Pollyanna”.

                                             Copyright © 2015 Larry Peterson

5 thoughts on “A Question for the Lenten Season: Is Forgiveness for Anyone Who Asks? Apparently Not.

  1. Brilliant and thought-provoking, I know the poor kid you are talking about obviously. And what they did to him was disgusting zero tolerance is really bad and sure those cases may be in the case of some, bin Laden or Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, I don't know but the situation you're talking about was awesome really great

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  2. This is such a hard issue, Larry. I don;t like all the safe environment programs, either. They seem to have the wrong focus. And zero tolerance bothers me. What about the wrongly accused? What about those who have changed? On the other hand, experience has shown that sex offenders are notoriously difficult to reform. And when they pose a potential threat to children especially, as a parent I don't want past offenders anywhere near my kids. There are no good answers.

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  3. I believe the forgiveness from human laws and the government is what you are seeking for. The Church forgives but since we have an earthly existence and are also subject to man's laws, if a crime happens, the Church has to be protected from being charged as an accessory and from being liable to suits. I am with you,. Sometimes "zero tolerance" is unfair and without common sense, but until we have a perfect world, life happens.. Need to change the laws…

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  4. In special cases like that of the young man you mention, a person denied the opportunity to serve the Church should have some means of appeal — a way to show that the circumstances of the offense should be taken into account. An FBI background check is not going to do this — that's fine. But the Church should not outsource or abdicate its responsibility to see that justice is done — what is "legal" is not necessarily just — or merciful. The Diocese should be willing to listen to reason, not just fall back on background checks by government agencies.

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  5. With Zero Tolerance there are no "special cases". The diocese here does (from what I have found out) have an appeal process but that is only if the diocese hired someone themselves. If the person is hired by a diocesan sub-contractor (ie: food service worker in a school). There is no redress. This was the case with the young man mentioned in the post.

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