Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Sexual Abuse and Respect for Institutions

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.


leif said...

closed systems provide a structure for abuse. some of the worst injustices in human history, perhaps nearly all, are supported by closed-system beliefs.

G. Verloren said...

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?

Which pretty neatly demonstrates that your logic can be flawless, and yet still you arrive at the totally wrong conclusions because your premise is fundamentally flawed. The universe doesn't care for "your point of view" - only for fact.

The Catholic church is built upon flawed premies that are themselves derived from other flawed premises, several layers deep. Question any one of them, and you ultimately have to dig deeper and deeper to reach the root of the problem, and you begin to unravel the entire mess.

Hence why such questioning is not allowed - the entire faith cannot endure scrutiny. And that's precisely why it needs to be scrutinized, and why it deserves to fall. It is an insidious web of lies and self deception, which has caused immeasurable human harm, and continues to do so, all in the name of utterly false justifications.

And what could possibly be more evil? If you are one of the faithful and honestly believe in Satan, what could be a more telltale sign of his nefarious work than the hidden corruption of the Catholic Church itself?

David said...

Only some institutions are in trouble. Governments, religions, schools are all floundering. Corporations are flourishing, more than they have in almost a century, and they seem to me untouchable.

John said...


That's an interesting point; I posted here a little while ago that the institution commanding the most respect from Democrats is Amazon.

Why are corporations thriving? Because they're giving us what we want? Or are they better at navigating the inevitable scandals than other institutions?

David said...

In terms of scandal specifically, corporations have some advantages. One of these is that, partly as a legacy of Milton Friedman, people have become comfortable with the idea that corporations exist to make money and need answer to no other purpose, and so corporations are less susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy than entities that claim to exist to benefit people. Another is that, in part because both Republicans and neo-liberal Dems have been on a pro-business jag since 1980, there's been a whole lot of law built up, strengthening NDAS and the hand of business in arbitration, and the like.

Beyond this, one could talk about both profound cultural baggage (anti-intellectualism, anti-Catholicism) and giant cultural shifts away from government and towards privatization that would take volumes to unravel.

A recent piece in the NYT posited a future in which the military has become a private corporation, quite independent of the government, in part to save itself from the general wreck of public institutions everywhere. This seems all too plausible to me.

JustPeachy said...

There's a profound difference between corporations and, say, schools or churches. Children aren't a part of them. When you have sexual misconduct in a corporation, it's between employees, and can often be considered an infraction of one adult against another, rather than the abuse of a helpless child in the care of the institution.

Which is not to say that corporations don't cover for offenders. Just that the optics tend toward "this is an adult abusing another adult, nothing to do with the organization." A partial exception is the military, where once you sign up, you can't just quit. Being abused in a situation where you can't leave is fundamentally different from being abused in most workplaces, where you could (not without negative consequences, but you wouldn't be considered AWOL and arrested). I recall "Tailhook" being a huge scandal in the news, back in the day.