That figures of the cloth have been associated with prosecutorial misconduct and the passions of the mob is one of this case’s many ironies. Rev. William Barber presides over the state NAACP, which posted an inaccuracy-laden “memorandum of law” on the case. The four-term former head of the Durham NAACP, Rev. Curtis Gatewood, contended that North Carolina Bar aided “the lynching mobs in Durham who have verbally lynched and sought to politically assassinate DA Mike Nifong,” and described the ethics charges against Nifong as part of a “conspiracy to disrupt justice in this Durham case.” At the April 11 NCCU forum, Pastor John Bennett proclaimed that he would lead a protest outside 610 N. Buchanan every week until the suspects were not only arrested but led away in handcuffs. A week later, Nifong obliged.
Alas, such behavior is not confined to religious figures outside of Duke. On April 2, Duke Chaplain Sam Wells opened his sermon by noting that President Brodhead “has consistently reminded us to be patient and withhold judgement until the facts are forensically established.” He then—Group of 88 style—placed the allegations in “a disturbingly extensive experience of sexual violence, of abiding racism, of crimes rarely reported and perpetrators seldom named, confronted, or convicted, of lives deeply scarred, of hurt and pain long suppressed.”
Wells implied that the lacrosse players had broken the “law” of the university. He placed their actions in a “subculture of reckless ‘entitlement’, sexual acquisitiveness and aggressive arrogance goes against every aspect of this law. It commodifies and consumes the bodies of others, with no generosity, no patience, no searching for truth or beauty, and no regard to its social significance. It undermines the university because it corrupts the imagination on which the whole university rests. It breaks the university's law. It debases desire.”
“The last week,” he contended, “has exposed the reality that sexual practices are an area where some male students are accustomed to manipulating, exploiting and terrorizing women all the time—and that this has been accepted by many as a given.”
Wells concluded by thanking the campus protesters—who were, of course, the potbangers and their student allies who had blanketed the campus with vigilante posters, and who had held daily rallies proclaiming the players guilty. These protesters, he noted, “have responded with an extraordinary outbreak of loving attention, generous dialogue, deep respect, a quest for goodness, and an acute regard to the wider social affects of their actions. Duke has, tentatively, been articulating more of what it means for a university to have a law.”
In an e-mail last fall, Wells told me he didn’t consider his sermon to be about the case itself, and that his most inflammatory remarks dealt with the broader issue of sexual violence. Yet he said something different in a May 6 interview with the Herald-Sun, noting that he had shelved his planned sermon, since everyone else was talking about the case. In any event, he allowed the sermon to appear, without any qualifications, as an op-ed under his name in the Herald-Sun the following week. And his performance as a member of the CCI did little to calm doubts about his judgment.
Wells was not the only Duke figure of the cloth to deliver remarks that failed to stand the test of time. One year ago today—March 26, 2006—Fr. Joseph Vetter, Duke’s Catholic chaplain, addressed the lacrosse case in his sermon. He opened with a comment that people have become “desensitized” to crime and violence because of video games and other cultural trends saying that “violence is OK.” “I want you to think about how desensitized we are now.”
Vetter than discussed the issue frankly (44.37, at this link): “All of us are very much aware with what is going on at Duke this week, how Duke is in the news in an unfavorable way. As I was going to mass this morning, going down
Vetter was referring here to the potbangers’ infamous Sunday morning vigil, at which they carried their “castrate” and “measure for measure” banners. Like most people at Duke, he appeared to have no problem with the activists’ rush to judgment. At least—unlike the Group of 88 or Rev. Wells—he didn’t thank them. Vetter continued:
And we don’t fully yet know what happened, and no one is guilty—everybody is innocent until they’re proven guilty—but it seems pretty apparent that something was going on there that was pretty bad the other night.
In an earlier portion of his sermon, speaking of both underage drinking and the hiring of strippers, Vetter had said, “I know that’s not uncommon.” Did listeners interpret his “pretty bad” comment as referring to something else? Vetter, in any event, left little doubt that his presumption of innocence was in name only:
(46.02) But, you know, we become desensitized. We think that [drinking] becomes normal. When we get caught up in patterns like that, sometimes it gets really out of control. And apparently something happened the other night where it really got out of control. At least the person claims that she was raped, that she was beaten, that she had racial slurs used against her. And if all that’s true and if the people that were involved are convicted, then some young people are going to go to jail and pay some really serious penalties for those crimes.
That’s really tragic, because I’m sure that none of those people who were involved in that incident had any idea that something like that was going to happen. Nobody would set that up. Nobody wanted that to turn bad—but it did.
One lacrosse parent who attended the service approached Fr. Vetter afterwards, reminded him of the presumption of innocence, and said that part of the priest’s job was to minister to Catholic players on the team.
Vetter’s response? “Tell them to confess their sins first.”