By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Bishop Robert W. Muench and two members of the diocesan Racial Harmony Commission are calling for healing and prayer in the wake of the Department Of Justice’s decision not to press charges against two Baton Rouge police officers involved in the shooting of Alton Sterling this past summer.

On May 3, the DOJ wrapped up a 10-month investigation into the shooting of the 37-year-old Sterling and concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove the officers had “acted recklessly or with negligence or by mistake,” acting U.S. attorney for the middle district of Louisiana Corey Amundson said in a press conference in Baton Rouge.

“We must dedicate ourselves to work for racial healing and transformation in Baton Rouge,” Bishop Muench said in a statement released shortly after the DOJ press conference. “While recognizing the universal respect we should have for those whose duty is to ensure our public safety, we must work together for law enforcement and criminal justice reform, economic development in all parts of the city, access to health care for all, quality education, and employment opportunities.”

“I call upon Catholics of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, members of all faith communities, and people of good will to seize this opportunity to bring about healing and change,” the bishop said. “This moment calls for conversion of mind, heart, and spirit that is both personal and systemic.”

Father Tom Clark SJ, pastor at Immaculate Conception in Church in Baton Rouge and a member of the Racial Harmony Commission, said he was not particularly surprised with the DOJ decision, noting the narrow focus of the investigation because it was for a civil rights violation. Father Clark, among others, pointed out the standard on a civil rights violation is much higher and that few indictments or further actions arise from that.

However, he was quick to add that the material in the DOJ investigation revealed what he called the “first real information about the case in such detail.”

“I think what was striking about (the DOJ) report was all of the additional information we received,” he added. “Receiving the details of the incident was very hard to hear because there were some very difficult things to hear about the languages, the tones (of the officers). I guess the reaction would be of real concern.

“And that certainly seems to say that there are a lot of things that the state can investigate as the focus now shifts to the (Louisiana) Attorney General’s office for investigation.”

AG Jeff Landry said his office is sending the investigation to the Louisiana State Police to determine if any criminal charges will be filed against Officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II.

Father Josh Johnson, the lone African-American priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and also a member of the Racial Harmony Commission, said many people have told him they are prayerful Landry’s office will “carefully look at all the evidence, including some critical evidence that was not referenced in the (DOJ) report.”

“Whatever the outcome, however this sad tragedy continues to evolve, whatever the fates of the two police officers are destined to be, we still have a serious problem in Baton Rouge,” Father Johnson said in a sentiment that was echoed by Bishop Muench and Father Clark. “Why? We are living in a racially divided city.

“In many ways this racial divide exists because of institutions and systems that offer access and opportunities to some and not to all because of their race, perceived race and or their socio-economic status. These systems perpetuate the racial divide between peoples. We have got to figure out a way to close these widening gaps between human beings, all of whom are made in the image and likeness of God.”

Bishop Muench said whether one agrees or disagrees with the DOJ decision, “one thing remains the same. There is a racial divide in our city that exposes a gap of access and opportunity.”

Bishop Muench noted the Racial Harmony Commission, which he established last year in reaction to this past summer’s violence, is working on ways as to how the diocese can respond and to build bridges of dialogue, understanding, respect and action.

Father Clark, whose church parish is located in the heart of one of the city’s troublesome areas, also pointed out the racial divide and said he is continuing to work for change.

“This is what our responsibility and our challenge to do right now, to keep on working to bridge that divide,” he said. “Since last summer there have been some really good initiatives. I think people all over the city, including the diocese, have wanted to do something. They have realized that divide and wanted to bridge it. Little steps have been taken.”

Father Johnson said the first step for healing includes the community working for personal reform and for reform of (institutions and other systems) for reform.

“Here is the thing, we are all in need of reform,” he said. “How do we experience this personal reform? I suggest we experience personal reform by spending more time with Jesus in prayer. The more time we spend with Jesus, who is perfect, the more opportunity we have to recognize the areas in our lives where he is inviting us to be purified and grow in virtue.”

Father Johnson explained that what has given him hope are reforms being put in place by new Baton Rouge Mayor/President Sharon Weston Broom, reforms he said can ultimately help ensure the safety of law enforcement officials as well as protecting “our civilians who have an inherit right to be respected and protected in their interactions with the law enforcement.”

He also believes it is imperative to begin looking into laws and policies that both accommodate and alienate groups of people based on the color of their skin in the criminal justice system, health care and education.

“If the institutions are reformed then we will begin to experience racial healing and transformation in our society and more bridges will be established with regards to racial harmony in our city of Baton Rouge,” Father Johnson said.