The Boy Scouts of America have filed for bankruptcy because they face hundreds of lawsuits for sexual abuse. The underlying problem is the same one that haunts the Catholic church: when they learned about abusive scout masters, the national organization acted first to cover everything up and protect its reputation. This sometimes meant allowing abusers to lead other troops and abuse other boys.
I have been thinking about the abuse crisis rather obsessively for years, and I think that the decline in respect for almost all institutions in our society is closely related to this problem. We now think that lying or hiding the truth to protect your institution may at times be a criminal act, if a child ends up suffering for it. But I very much doubt that any institution can maintain a high reputation under conditions of openness and honesty.
Journalist Rod Dreher converted to Catholicism as a teenager and became very devout and conservative. Then he covered the first five years or so of the sexual abuse scandal. The experience so traumatized him that he couldn't go to church any more. Eventually he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, which doesn't have the same problem because its hierarchy is very weak. The particular experience that drove Dreher out of Catholicism was being repeatedly, flagrantly lied to by church leaders. I remember in particular one line from his work. Dreher had begun to suspect that a certain bishop was lying to him and expressed his doubts to an acquaintance who was a leading Catholic theologian. Well, the theologian said, you have to believe him. Dreher: why? Everything I have found suggests otherwise. Theologian: "Because he is a Bishop of the Catholic Church!"
This argument did not convince Dreher, and he went on to play his part in exposing the scandal, which led millions of people to drop out of the church.
I think that from his point of view the theologian was right. For the church to survive, it needs people to defend it no matter what. If the existence of the church is humanity's best hope for eternal salvation, doesn't that end justify using any means to preserve it?
Consider what I just posted about people who defend politicians' lies when they care enough about the issues the politicians stand for. Imagine, say Northern Ireland in the 1970s; how would the partisans of either side have reacted to an insider who had exposed a scandal involving one of his or her own leaders? Hatred at least, and quite likely execution. Should the church demand any less devotion than what people often give to petty political factions?
I think that when you stop accepting excuses, justifications and evasions from your leaders because you care more about something else, an important change has taken place. In the West we have decided that the sexual abuse of children is a wrong too profound to be any longer swept under the rug in the name of institutional legitimacy.
Every time we do this, we weaken our institutions. Personally I am ok with that, but then I have never been an institution guy. I suppose the hope is that by "shining a light" on abuses, openness might reduce them and thus in the long run strengthen institutions. I am doubtful. I think any group with thousands of members is going to have its share of criminals and creeps, and I think that our natural bias for paying attention to the dramatic and lurid, reinforced by our news media, means that those cases will continue to do great damage.
How to balance people's need for supportive institutions, and things to believe in, with the demands of justice is a hard problem, maybe one of the hardest we face.