By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
DARTMOUTH, Mass. — There have been many milestones in Judge Phillip Rapoza’s already-impressive judicial career.
In 1998, he was appointed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court in Boston, making him the first Portuguese-American in the Commonwealth’s history to serve in that capacity.
In 2002, he was decorated by the president of Portugal and given the rank of Comendador in the esteemed “Order of Prince Henry the Navigator,” an honor akin to being named Knights Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
But the recent opportunity to have a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican was a singular honor and “incredible privilege,” according to the Dartmouth native.
“I have had many opportunities and experiences during the almost 25 years that I have been a judge,” Rapoza recently told The Anchor. “I must say, however, that meeting Pope Francis was unquestionably the most memorable.”
Rapoza, who currently serves as Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, was one of five individuals invited on October 23 to address the Holy Father on a range of criminal justice topics relating to victims’ rights, prison conditions and the rehabilitation of offenders.
As president of the International Penal and Penitentiary Foundation, which is headquartered in Switzerland, Rapoza was “grateful for this memorable opportunity.”
“From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has demonstrated an interest in matters relating to criminal justice such as victims’ rights, prison conditions and the rehabilitation of offenders,” Rapoza said. “In August of this year he invited the presidents of the five major international organizations that work in those fields to a private audience at the Vatican. As president of the IPPF, one of the five designated organizations, I was invited to meet the Holy Father.”
A member of the IPPF since 1998 and having served as president since 2011, Rapoza said the organization has representatives in more than 30 countries and “promotes studies in the field of crime prevention and the treatment of offenders.”
“It has consultative status with several U.N. agencies,” Rapoza said. “It was very important to have our efforts validated by Pope Francis and to have the opportunity to advise him in matters of mutual concern.”
Each of the invited presidents was asked to submit a written presentation on issues relevant to the work of their respective organizations, Rapoza explained.
“In my case I addressed matters relating to the core mission of the IPPF, especially with respect to the treatment of offenders,” he said. “In sum, I acknowledged that legitimate considerations of public safety support the imprisonment of violent and repeat offenders and that it is important to hold offenders accountable for their actions.
“At the same time, however, I noted that the continued high rate of incarceration, although a response to crime, is not a solution to it. I focused on the use of means other than routine imprisonment, such as alternative sentences, intermediate sanctions and diversion programs. My overall theme was that we cannot incarcerate our way out of the problem of crime.”
During public remarks that covered a number of topics, Rapoza said Pope Francis similarly “expressed his concern with respect to the excessive use of incarceration, especially in circumstances where prison conditions fail to respect the human dignity of those who are confined.”
“When we spoke privately,” he added, “the Holy Father thanked me for my contribution and I expressed my appreciation for the comprehensive nature of his remarks regarding matters of concern to the IPPF.”
Rapoza has been active in the field of international criminal justice throughout his judicial career. For many years he headed the Commission for Justice Across the Atlantic, a judicial and legal exchange program between the United States and Portugal. Prior to his appointment as Chief Justice of the Appeals Court, he took an unpaid leave of absence from his state court duties to serve as an international judge and coordinator of the Special Panels for Serious Crimes, a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in East Timor.
In 2012, he was appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to serve as the international reserve judge for the Supreme Court Chamber of the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.
“The rule of law is fundamental to life in a democratic society and that is especially true in matters relating to crime and the rights of victims,” Rapoza said. “All members of civil society — not just lawyers and judges — thus have a duty to be informed about the criminal justice system.”
Rapoza said that process should begin in our schools where civic education can focus on developing a citizenry that is better informed about the criminal justice system.
“In recent years, members of both the bar and the judiciary have undertaken a more active role in sponsoring public outreach and a variety of education initiatives relating to our justice system,” he said.
“When it is at its best, the press can also play a role in educating the public in such matters,” Rapoza added. “These are all steps in the right direction and will benefit both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”
When asked if he felt confident that Pope Francis could help to bring about changes in the criminal justice system, Rapoza suggested others might be “better-equipped to make such an assessment.”
“From my own experience, however, I can say that Pope Francis has, in the words of the Shaker hymn, ‘the gift to be simple,’” Rapoza said. “His modest style of living and his evident humility suggest that he is focused on the basics — that is, those things that are fundamental to how we should live both as individuals and as members of society.
“That was made clear in his remarks at the recent audience, in which he emphasized the core value of respect for the dignity of the human person, whether that person is a victim or an offender. The gift of simplicity that the Holy Father possesses does not mean that he is simplistic. Rather, it reflects a move back to basics that will serve all his efforts in guiding the Church and in pursuing social justice.”
Having also recently met Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., for the first time at the annual Red Mass celebration, Rapoza said he noticed some parallels between our Holy Father and Fall River’s eighth bishop.
“Both of them project a kind of selflessness that I believe is unconscious on their part, but that reflects their underlying nature,” he said. “It is evident that they both take their responsibilities seriously, but they do not take themselves too seriously. In a sense they are both so impressive because neither one really thinks of himself as impressive.”
Rapoza has noticed that the pope and bishop not only share a similar sense of humor, but also a ready willingness to smile when greeting others.
“A person’s smile can serve as a mirror of their soul and in the case of Pope Francis and Bishop da Cunha, I believe it reflects a warm and welcoming heart,” he said.