The Fix

A friend of mine who is a reporter and novelist, a Chicagoan who moved out West years ago, recently wrote to tell me that he had taken up his pen torecord the real life story of a friend who is a clerical-sexual-abuse survivor. He sent me a draft of the first chapter. It is very graphic and horrifying and my friend reports that he gets so angry as this personrelates his story that he has a very hard time writing it down.One of the themes of the story is of course how the predator priest was protected by his diocese.My friend and I, bothChicago boys, can see in this the classic operation of The Fix. We both grew up in working class neighborhoods and are of an age to know the fix all too well. My friends account of the fix reminded me of other fixes that I've heard about, and while pondering them, I had a thought.The story of a fix that I am going to use as an example is one of my favorites because it involves my great-grandmother and gunfire.

I dont have any adult memories of my great-grandmother, who died when I was eleven. But even I remember what a tough old bird she was. She was a Chicago police officer, and she had enough political clout to still be active on the force when she died at almost eighty years of age.One of my mothers earliest memories of her was typical. Here I was, my mother told me, meeting my soon-to-be husbands grandmother downtown, and the old lady suggests that we take a taxi back to her apartment. The driver drove for a few minutes and then took a wrong turn, which I am positive was just an honest mistake. Suddenly, Jennie pulls a pistol out of her purse and puts it at the back of the drivers head and says, 'Listen Mister. You are going to drive us straight there the right way and you are not going to take advantage of a couple of women.'The Chicago Irish community, including and perhaps especially people with an official capacity like policemen, firemen, city workers, and priests, was very close knit. The families in that community were often very clannish. Jennie was the matriarch of her clan. And although there were plenty of cops and detectives in the family, if you really needed something to be fixed, you went to Jennie. And the fix in these communities was a way of life.In her old age, Jennie lived alone. She had occupied the same apartment for decades.She lived in one of those old courtyard apartment buildings that one can still see on the North and West sides of the city.When she would come home from work at night, she had a habit of putting her purse on the bed stand and then lying down fully clothed for a nap. The nap could last twenty minutes or eight hours. (The nap used to drive the family crazy, because however long it took, she was always groggy when she woke up and she would always start calling family members to chat.)Jennies bed faced the bedroom door, which in turn faced the front door of her apartment. One night the man who lived upstairs from her, who in the familys history is identified as the local Irish precinct captain, came home even drunker than usual and made the mistake of miscounting how many flights of stairs he had walked up. He tried his key in the lock, but naturally it didnt work because he was in front of Jennies door rather than his own.Jennie was awakened from her nap by the sound of this man fiddling with her door lock. She called out. Then she called out again. But the precinct captain was too drunk to notice her. So she took out her police revolver, and with a steady hand, from where she was lying in the bed, fired a shot at chest height through her front door.Fortunately, the precinct captain was the recipient of one of those miracles that sometimes happen to drunks. At the very moment Jennie raised her hand to fire, he bent down to put his eye close to the lock to try and figure out why the damn key wouldnt work. So the shot passed over his head.The precinct captain, now considerably more sober than he had been just a moment before, dropped his keys and ran screaming from the building that someone was shooting at him from inside his apartment.A number of people in the building called the police.We may assume that the call shots fired at Irishman brought the Chicago squad cars to the scene very quickly. When they arrived they saw the shaking precinct captain standing in the courtyard, while Jennie was emerging from the front door with pistol in hand, to see if she had at least succeeded in winging the guy, whoever he was. The police quickly put the whole story together and a good laugh was had by (almost) all. There were no arrests and although I am sure that Jennies police captain had a couple of words with her the next day about the importance of warning people before shooting at them, no police report was filed and this became just another event in my strange family archive.Now you may be wondering what this story of a political fix has to do with the Catholic Church. Lets look for a moment at this fix that was put in for Jennie. Jennie did have the kind of political clout in the Irish West Side (Austin) that would, and did, fix all sorts of problems in the old days with just a wink and a nod.But in this particular case, what did she need in order to do this?For this particular fix to work, she needed the cooperation of the police and detectives on the scene; the people who lived in the building (particularly the people who lived directly across the hall, who found a bullet hole appearing in the wall above their bed that night); any City News Bureau stringer who might have been taking a ride with the police; Jennies own police captain boss; the Ward Committeeman who was the precinct captains boss; and last but by no means least, the precinct captain that she almost killed.All of these people (and maybe more) would have had to cooperate, activelyor passively,to keep this incident swept under the rug.It was not only a bunch of officials covering up something for one of their own. Everyone was involved. When I heard this story from family members many years later, I got the distinct impression that this kind of participation was something that all the people involved assumed as a matter of course.The thing that strikes me about the fix then was how formally non-coercive it was.I suppose that all power relations have some implicit threat of coercion behind them.But this fix -- and fixes like it -- did not usually require any direct coercion unless the issue was both especially serious and especially public.Now I am not saying that people dont put in the fix today. But what would the fix look like now? Unless it took place in the context of a modern cult, one could not assume anything at all about the possible reactions of the people involved. For the fix to work, each and every one would have to be individually paid off or scared off. And to do this, one would need a totally closed group of people amenable to these kinds of persuasion, because anyone who participated in the fix would be vulnerable in the future to anyone else who knew about it.When I read about the scandals in the Catholic Church today, the old Chicago Irish West Sider in me invariably turns to memories of these stories of the fix. The Catholic Church, at least in American cities, used to live in the world of the old-style fix that I have described above. The old-style fix needed unified and rather enclosed communities that drew an important part of their identity from a belief that they were separate from (and threatened by) society at large. In those days, one tended to live ones entire daily life in ones enclosed community. Jennies community was that of the West Side Irish (as distinguished from the South Side Irish). The Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, Jews, Bohemians, Ukrainians, the Blacks, and everyone else lived their lives in these communities. And their church organizations were integrated into the fix the way that all the other community organizations were. If you had a problem, youd go to the church or the synagogue, or you would go to the precinct captain or the local police station. And if something happened within these organizations -- to the police, or firemen, or priests, or ward heelers -- they would take care of each other.When I read about the cover ups in the church, I see nothing more or less than the old fix in action. My story of Jennie was rather benign and entertaining compared to some others I could tell. There is no doubt whatsoever that those people were corrupt or that the corruption was systematic. But it was a different form of corruption than we see now. The badthings people do dont change. Police misconduct with guns still occurs, civil and criminal trials are still fixed, and suspects are still tortured. (A Chicago Yellow Pages across the back of the head is something I have now heard about from four generations of police; it definitely rings the bell but it leaves no marks.) The whole range of sin and crimes that occurred then occurs now.But it is important to note that the old kind of fix is dead. We argue now in religion and politics against its possible return, but it is just as dead as all of the people who were there that day when my great-grandmother shot a hole through her door.The old fix didnt die because people started to become better citizens.It died because the social system that supported it died, both in the community and in the church.The old communities as well as the church fragmented.Community and church became places that one lived only a part (and usually a small part) ofone's life. When corruption strikes now and in the future, it will take a new form.It's true that inthe case of the church we still see some older and nostalgic people who seemsurprised that the wink and the nod dont work any more.Butthosewhosay the church must changebefore the people can enter it again with trust are mistaken, in my opinion. That old church is already dead. The clock cannot be turned back. What one needs to kill the fix is a simple refusal to tolerate it. And although we may not have seen all the guilty punished and all the victims satisfied, there is a new vigilance both within and without the church. It is precisely why we will not see the fix as it was again.Now since the church of the fix is dead, it cant take care of the problems it created. We have inheritedthe problems caused by that church. We must see that justice is done andthat victims are embraced. But there is no need to wait for the New Church to arise. It has arisen already. Its here now.What are you going to make of it?

unagidon is the pen name of a former dotCommonweal blogger.  

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