The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bishop Minns Takes His Stand

I see from the Lead that CANA Bishop Martyn Minns has issued a pastoral letter to Fr.Don Armstrong's breakaway congregation regarding Fr. Armstrong's conviction of 2 counts of theft--one count felony and one misdemeanor theft. (My more detailed analysis of the plea, in which Fr. Armstrong did not admit culpability, and the felony component of which will, if he successfully completes probation, dismissed and possibly expunged, is here; Rev. Armstrong's plea agreement explicitly states that he both counts as to which he is to be convicted are charges of theft (Plea Agreement at p. 2, Par. 3.A (felony theft); p. 2, Par. 3.B (misdemeanor theft))).

Bishop Minns writes:
You have been in my prayers as the legal nightmare that you have all endured seems to be coming to a close. While a number of definitive actions have been taken, there are still more decisions to be rendered and hearings to be held; therefore at this juncture it is not appropriate for me to comment on specific legal issues. I am looking forward to my visit next month when I will meet with members of the leadership and legal teams to more fully understand the situation and its likely trajectory.

In the meantime, one thing I can and will say is that my love and respect for Don and Jessie and the leadership of St. George’s has not diminished but rather increased by the way in which you all have conducted yourselves. You have all been examples of God’s grace at work. I am delighted to count you as friends and it is a privilege to serve as your bishop.

It is my belief, based upon a thorough investigation of the contested facts, that this entire situation never should have been made the subject of a criminal investigation. I am convinced that if ever there was a situation that underscored the wisdom of our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about settling matters out of court (Matthew 5:25– 26), this is it! Millions of dollars have been wasted; lives have been disrupted; reputations destroyed; and the Gospel of Christ obscured by the controversy — and we are still far from reaching a place where we can show the world the power of God’s transforming and reconciling love.
(Emphasis added; text of quoted paragraphs unedited to provide context).

Now, to the extent that Bishop Minns is signaling that he has no intention of disciplining Fr. Armstrong, that is his right and his privilege. He is the bishop, and it is for him to determine what standards he will hold his clergy to. I'm a layman and would not presume to opine on that privilege. I find his exercise of that right in this case disturbing, and am glad to see many reasserters do as well, but that's as far as I'm prepared to go. However, as a former public defender, and a practicing lawyer, I do feel that I must address his statements regarding the criminal justice system.

When Bishop Minns writes that "[it is my belief, based upon a thorough investigation of the contested facts, that this entire situation never should have been made the subject of a criminal investigation" he is speaking what can most kindly be termed arrant nonsense. Fr. Armstrong, as a result of this plea, will be conclusively adjudicated (upon its formal entry) a convicted thief. Even if he successfully serves his 4 years of probation, Fr. Armstrong will remain a convicted thief, albeit a low-level thief. To say, in the face of this legal fact, that the matter did not rise to the level of being worthy of investigation is, simply, absurd. Any case which results in a fairly obtained conviction of some or all of the charges is, obviously, one which warrants investigation. Period.

Bp. Minns seems to labor under the impression that the low level of offense which will remain on Fr. Armstrong's record, assuming he successfully completes probation, renders this case a triviality. First, four years probation, for a first offense, with no violence, up to a year's imprisonment still a possibility and an unknown amount of restitution to be ordered, is hardly trivial. (And I think these statements are increasing the prospect of a custodial sentence and the amount of the restitution, Fr. Armstrong. My every defender's instinct wants to yell, "SHUT UP!" at you for your own good). But there is a more fundamental flaw with Bp. Minns' analysis.

As I explained in my earlier post, the deferred sentence is under the Colorado Supreme Court's ruling in People v. Darlington, a vehicle to allow for compassionate treatment of offenders in "the interests of justice." It's not that such offenders aren't guilty; it's that their exposure to the full rigor of the legal system would cause more harm than the deterrence, retributive and rehabilitative purposes of the criminal sanction would justify.

[I am aware that Armstrong's attorneys have suggested that the prosecutors were concerned about statute of limitations problems. Perhaps. However, as Armstrong's camp have not been, shall we say, honest in their accounts of the plea, I am skeptical. This case savors to me of a prosecutor who wanted a conviction, but not to ruin the otherwise socially beneficial life of a clergyman--a not uncommon attitude when offenses are financial in nature].

And this is where Bishop Minns--and Fr. Armstrong too--are being unacceptably cavalier. In trying to spin this act of grace from a legal system which does not prioritize grace, as a loss to the prosecutor, they are disincentivizing the prosecutor's office from offering other offenders the same benefit. Prosecutors are judged by their records, and are always eager to show how tough they are. When the object of their mercy claims victory, and that the prosecutor threw in the towel, they'll think twice before offering someone else a chance.

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