My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
“If you see something, say something.” This phrase is the trademarked slogan of the United States Department of Homeland Security intended to promote its national campaign to raise public awareness on suspicious activities, behaviors or situations that may suggest acts of terrorism or terrorism-related crimes. The campaign to urge people to report suspicious activity was a response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A deadly example of what can happen when something suspicious is overlooked and goes unreported was the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, when a pair of homemade bombs detonated in the crowd watching the race, killing three people and injuring more than 260. Two pressure-cooker bombs were packed with shrapnel and hidden in backpacks placed among crowds of marathon-watchers.
The phrase, “If you see something, say something,” has also made its way into safe environment training programs to encourage people to report suspected sexual abuse of minors. In fact, state law mandates some people who work with children to report suspected child abuse, such as teachers, school administrators, healthcare practitioners, law enforcement personnel, social service and child-care workers, as well as clergy (except when revealed in sacramental confession).
While reporting suspected abuse and suspicious activity can help prevent crimes, care must be taken to make sure that such suspicions are not spurious, given the harm to a person’s good name and reputation that can come from false accusations. Suspicious situations should also be brought to the attention of the proper authorities, lest the suspicions become simply the subject of idle chatter, habitual gossip, and rumor-mongering.
Writing about the phrase “If you see something, say something” in The Washington Post on Sept. 23, 2016, Hanson O’Haver noted, “The expression makes us vigilant, but it also makes us paranoid. It’s turned us into a country of people who see danger lurking inside every forgotten backpack, making an incredibly remote risk feel imminent. Americans shouldn’t be encouraged to live in unreasonable fear.” He reports that the New York Police Department receives roughly 100 suspicious-package calls a day. The vast majority of those tips generate no terrorism leads.
Then there is the problem of false reports, as William Neuman wrote in The New York Times on Jan. 7, 2008, saying, “Some callers tried to turn the authority’s slogan on its head. These people saw nothing but said something anyway — calling in phony bomb threats or terror tips. At least five people were arrested in the past two years and charged with making false reports.”
These cautions need to be kept in mind as some people’s suspicions that minors are being sexually abused by clergy and other church personnel have been heightened by extensive media reports of such misconduct during the past year. While we should be vigilant about suspected sexual abuse, we also need to be responsible in the way we handle such suspicions.
The Department of Homeland Security recommends that, If you see suspicious activity, you should report it to local law enforcement or a person of authority using the “5W’s”:
There are also some moral principles to keep in mind about safeguarding the reputation of persons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2477) says, “Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty: of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor; of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them; of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.”
Following these principles should lead us to be responsible in preventing a variety of harms: the harm of threats to our safety and security; the harm of sexual abuse of minors; and the harm to the good name and reputation of those falsely accused.
May God give us this grace. Amen.