Predatory Priests, Politics, and the Cancer of Coverups

It has become a cliche, but there is a lot of truth in the adage about the coverup being worse than the crime. Coverups take many forms from simple denials to complex schemes involving payoffs and destruction of evidence, but when you try to bury something toxic sooner or later it is going to bubble up to the surface. We’ve been seeing that for some time now with the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and it is pretty routine in politics. The coverup is usually born from ambition, confused notions of loyalty, or a perceived need to protect the “tribe.”


More often than not a coverup boils down to an exercise in some variation of the fallacy “the ends justify the means.”

In the Church, it is doubtful that sexual predators were not dealt with appropriately because authorities actively approved of sexually abusing minors. Some bishops were probably just gobsmacked by the situation and believed their underlings who told them the situation was handled, but I suspect more acted under the mistaken belief that they were defending the Church.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Catholic Church was a bigger boogeyman for many than Russian conspiracies are today. It is easy to imagine that at a time when Catholics were beginning to gain more acceptance in America, some bishops would have a knee-jerk reaction and only focus on one thing: if this gets out we’re ruined. That led directly to badly calculated attempts to make the sexual abuse cases go away as quickly and quietly as possible. Sadly, neglecting the welfare of children was the means used to justify the end of protecting the reputation of the Church.

It didn’t work anyway. The decision not to root out the problem when it was first discovered caused even more damage to the victims and more damage to the Church’s reputation.

Wherever you find someone sexually abusing children you’ll usually find someone guilty of pretending it’s not happening because they fear what will result from tackling the problem head on. The denial and hesitation never brings about a better situation. Just ask Joe Paterno whose long, illustrious coaching career is now completely overshadowed by his looking the other way while his assistant Jerry Sandusky sexually abused boys. We don’t hear a lot about people who did nothing despite knowing their own spouse was abusing their children, but it happens all the time.


Virtually any institution where adults routinely interact with children will have a similar rate of sexual abuse over the same time period. There is nothing unique about the Catholic Church in that regard (except that the news of it makes for more salacious headlines). What is unique is that Catholic bishops not only failed to protect children. They failed to live up to the basic tenets of the faith they purport to hold. You cannot simultaneously believe that Christ established a Church against which the gates of Hell would not prevail but that the (albeit heinous) crimes of a fraction of a percent of clergy would be its undoing. Their actions revealed a failure to understand the most basic Christian concepts of repentance, sacrifice, and forgiveness. In addition to the obvious damage they have done, they have also caused many to doubt their faith. How many I don’t know but I suspect it is not an insignificant number.

I can’t say that coverups always backfire because I have no idea how often people in positions of power get away with covering up crimes. I suspect it is far more often than we would like to think.  I will say that coverups always corrupt the person or institution they seek to protect. Lies always beget more lies and the more you lie the easier it becomes.

Pretending that bad behavior can go unaddressed because addressing it might require short term pain or sacrifice will inevitably lead to even worse problems in the long term. That’s the primary reason I complain about how Republicans now think it’s fashionable to behave like Democrats did during the Clinton era. When you start ignoring or defending things you once believed to be objectively wrong for the sake of politics, public relations, or personal gain, you have introduced rot into your value system. Coming back from that is neither easy nor likely.



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