When should you report a crime to the police? Always? Sometimes? Hardly ever? Are you morally obliged to pass on to the authorities anything you hear that suggests to you that a crime may have taken place? Does this depend on whether you yourself have witnessed the crime or been a victim of crime, or have just had the crime reported to you? In other words, what are the moral questions around the phenomenon of what is sometimes called in Catholic circles “delation”, but more often called reporting things to the police.
There is nothing really controversial about reporting a crime to the police, when it is pretty obvious that a crime has been committed. If you are burgled, you phone the police, and that is all there is to it. You then leave the police to investigate, and, one hopes, make an arrest. In this country we trust the police to carry out their duties according to the law.
At the other end of the spectrum, consider Rome in the time of the Emperor Tiberius. If you delated someone to the authorities for a crime, then you, the delator, would, after their execution, be entitled to a slice of their fortune under Roman law. This encouraged all sorts of scoundrels to delate innocent but very rich people, who were then subjected to show trials and executed, the state and the delator divvying up the money. This was a great way of raising funds for an unscrupulous government, and a great way of getting rid of people the Emperor did not care for. Naturally, this sort of thing is indefensible, but sadly not unknown in today’s world. In certain countries political opponents have been eliminated, though not executed, on trumped up, or at least politically motivated, charges. Remember the Rev Canaan Banana? Or this case in Malaysia?
Any form of delation of a public figure for a crime requires careful scrutiny. First of all, public figures are accountable before the law, just like the rest of us. At the same time, as public figures, they have both the same rights as the rest of us, as well as a special vulnerability. There certainly have been cases where “allegations” have been made against public figures which were utterly groundless, and which would never have been made if the figures in question had not had a high profile.
Behind all this lies an important moral principle, namely that all people, whoever they may be, have a right to their good name. To destroy someone’s good name without grave reason is an act showing a serious lack of charity. Of course, criminals lose their good name, and are publicly shamed, and that is part of their punishment, a major part in many cases. But people who have committed no crime do not deserve this, and we should all act in such a way as to ensure that their reputations are protected.
What this means in practice is hard to determine. It must mean not patronising newspapers and websites that make public shaming their business. It must mean refraining from the sin of gossip. And it must mean, surely, granting anonymity to those accused of certain crimes. After all, such people are innocent until proven guilty. But how it impacts on the right to free speech, I am not quite sure.