Editorial: Lasting lessons from Bristol's national embarrassment

Posted 8/8/19

Every organization that welcomed, embraced and empowered an accused predator owes this community an apology. That list begins with St. Mary’s Church and the Bristol Democratic Town Committee, …

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Editorial: Lasting lessons from Bristol's national embarrassment

Posted

Every organization that welcomed, embraced and empowered an accused predator owes this community an apology. That list begins with St. Mary’s Church and the Bristol Democratic Town Committee, and it includes this newspaper.

As an organization that prides itself on being a watchdog for the community, we should have done more to dig for the truth about someone we always considered a man of questionable character with dubious motivations. To everyone, we apologize for not doing our jobs as well we could have. And to the alleged victims, we express our deep support and sympathies; Robert Powers has our admiration and respect.

Yet we could only report on David Barboza. We never elevated him to membership … chairman … endorsed candidate … president … leader.

The institutions of power and influence in this community should be asking hard, tough questions about how they screen and choose their leaders. For too long, the primary qualification for leadership in Bristol has been the groups you’ve joined and the people you know — rather than the person you are.

For decades, the easiest path to influence was joining the Democratic Town Committee. Get on the inside of that club, and you’re on the right path. That was the case with Barboza. After narrowly winning a seat by 10 votes in his 1998 campaign for Bristol Town Council, he went on to be re-elected six more times as an endorsed candidate of the town’s dominant political party. Some raised questions about his character by citing his 1982 arrest for solicitation of a minor, only to be dismissed by the majority of Bristol voters.

His tenure at the highest levels of Bristol government opened even more doors, as he led the Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee, overseeing funding for thousands of school children for many years, and later received the town’s “highest honor” (does that still hold the same meaning these days?) when he was named Bristol Fourth of July chief marshal.

The Democratic Town Committee owes this community an apology for its role in this alleged predator’s political career and rise to power, yet their knee-jerk response last week was surprisingly tone deaf. Instead of taking ownership for their role or mistakes, the new leadership of the party swiftly issued a press release — 24 hours after a Boston Globe article was published — distancing itself from Barboza and claiming he had not been involved in their group for “several years.”

Most shameful was their boasting about how local Democrats helped pass new legislation to expand the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims — a bill that had broad support from all parties and passed the House of Representatives by a whopping 70-1 vote; a bill that may do nothing to help Mr. Powers.

The Diocese of Providence and St. Mary’s Church have been deaf, dumb and mute on this case, not responding to any questions or issuing any statements, other than a 17-word email making it clear that Barboza resigned from employment last week, while misspelling his name twice.

The Town of Bristol can do some explaining as well, to be sure the screening and hiring practices in the police and fire departments of today are nothing like they were in the 1970s. Anyone who supported or shielded Barboza as a police officer, state fire marshal or firefighter is partly responsible for enabling his horrifying behavior.

The other organizations he served are less culpable, as so many of them struggle simply to recruit members, especially those willing to lead. Nevertheless, they too should conduct a self-assessment of how they represent themselves and choose their leaders. Being a good volunteer is but a small part of the criteria.

For too long, it’s been an oversized criteria in Bristol — If you’re part of the club, you’re good with us. That culture must change.

In some places, a strength of a person’s character, as measured by their motivations, their selflessness, their family life, their intelligence, their education and career, their hobbies, interests and causes, matter at least a much as the network they tapped into.

Out of this dreadful tragedy, our community can change and get better, and so can the institutions of power who wield influence on the 25,000 people living here.

For the moment, the David Barboza story is our national embarrassment. Let it be our cultural turning point.

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.