Spitzer’s Law

Any large group of people will include individuals who are doing harmful or shameful things — by which I mean things outrageous enough to be newsworthy — out of public view. This is true of families, clubs, companies, political parties, nations, and all manner of other institutions, including religious ones. The larger the group, the more inevitable this becomes. For the sake of brevity I’m calling this observation Spitzer’s Law. (I considered calling it Edwards’s Law, but decided I’d rather not deal with that clumsy “s apostrophe s” thing.)

When an outrageously harmful or shameful thing comes to light from within a group we don’t like, there’s a knee-jerk tendency to judge everyone in the group as being equally guilty perpetrators (the Little Lulu Corollary). This is juvenile, because Spitzer’s Law has no exceptions. It applies to every group we all belong to that contains more than, I’d say, 50 people. Probably not even that many.

Of course, when a public figure who has marketed himself as a paragon of virtue is caught being a hypocrite — the Haggerty Scenario — we do all line up to throw rotten tomatoes, don’t we?

There is also a very human tendency to overlook obvious behavioral problems in people we like personally. We’ll squelch our own suspicions that sweet Uncle Ted cheats on Aunt Melba, or that our office friend Sally who gives everyone funny birthday cards is skimming off the books. Up to a point, that’s very normal and understandable.

In fact, I’d say the more terrible the act being perpetrated, the more likely it is that people who are close to the perpetrator will not see it, even if the evidence is all over the place. It’s the old cognitive dissonance thing.

There’s also the truth of the “banality of evil.” The most ordinary, unremarkable people can be capable of the most diabolical atrocities. We expect villains to bear some physical mark of villainy, or at least to be jerks so that we don’t like them. But in the real world, that’s not how it works. Genuine psychopaths often can be downright charming.

So, when an individual is caught doing something criminal or immoral, this doesn’t necessarily prove anything about groups he works for or belongs to. However, how a group responds to the bad behavior, once it’s discovered, speaks volumes.

If people in a leadership position saw what was happening, did they acknowledge the bad behavior and take steps to stop it? Or did they try to cover it up but let it continue?

If the bad behavior becomes public knowledge and the group faces public criticism, does the group forthrightly atone for the harm done, or does it close ranks and make excuses?

By now you probably realize I’m thinking of the widening Catholic clergy scandal. The Church is not exactly covering itself in glory on this one.

It doesn’t shock me that an institution as large as the Catholic church contains some members who are sexual abusers, or alcoholics, or thieves, or sadists, or who just engage in some sort of secret harmless kinkery. This will happen. It’s Spitzer’s Law.

I think it’s often the case that people who are genuinely warped are given to ostentatious displays of religiosity. In fact, I’d say the more flamboyantly or stridently religious someone is, the more likely he/she is hiding something (the Haggerty Scenario, again). And it doesn’t surprise me that people with harmful sexual compulsions would join a religious organization with a repressive attitude toward most sexuality. Moths to a flame, folks. (However, this does not mean that all religious people are warped.)

The sexual exploitation of children is something that so stuns most peoples’ sensibilities that it’s common to react by looking the other way and pretending one didn’t see what one saw. If the perpetrator is someone one knows, it’s a huge thing to process. Someone with no habit of introspection may be unable to process it.

However, most religions encourage moral introspection of some sort — reflection on and confession of one’s misbehavior. Obviously, this often doesn’t “work.” The degree to which it obviously isn’t working, as measured by a religious institution’s handling of its members’ bad behavior, is the degree to which a religious institution relinquishes public moral authority.

So I don’t criticize Catholicism per se because “A small minority has sinned, gravely, against too many,” as the Anchoress wrote yesterday. I criticize church leadership for covering it up and letting it continue. Especially the latter part. If they’d covered it up but made sure the “problem” priests were removed from contact with parishioners, the Church’s behavior would be less heinous. But that’s not what the Church did.

And I say that anyone involved in covering it up, allowing it to continue, and then deflecting public criticism with whiny excuses, has no authority whatsoever to assume public leadership on any moral issue, henceforth. Period.

Individuals will be flawed, but an institution assuming a role of moral leadership over the rest of us must demonstrate it can rise above its own bullshit. Otherwise, it should assume nothing more than humility.

See also: The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s flawed understanding of “morality.”

Update: Cluelessness abounds

While I cannot excuse the actions of those who abused innocent children or who failed to intervene, I utterly reject the self righteous fury of those who would condemn an entire church for the actions of a few.

Although I’m sure the scandal has brought out the knee-jerk anti-Catholic and anti-religion crowd, most of the criticism I have seen has been leveled at the Church’s continued clumsy and clueless reaction (and it is a reaction, not a response) to the whole issue. And when I say Church, I am not talking about the Church Universal, but just the current, temporal institutional authorities, who have yet to forthrightly own up to their failures in this matter.

21 thoughts on “Spitzer’s Law

  1. “… but decided I’d rather not deal with that clumsy “s apostrophe s” thing.)”
    Personally, I thank you. You know I battle apostrophe’s like a drug addict does his/her demons.

    “Otherwise, it should assume nothing more than humility.”
    That’s assuming too much of them.

    And as for the Pope, or any other members of the church hierarchy, disavowing any right to yammer on endlessly about moral rights, well, isn’t that like asking a bear NOT to shit in the woods?
    The bear can’t help himself. Neither can the Pope. The difference is that the bear doesn’t have a billion or so people cheering his every turd.*

    *Note to William Donohue:
    No matter how hard you try to polish this molestation turd, you won’t be able to turn into a diamond.
    The first step in recovery, is to admit you have a problem. A simple, “We’re sorry, we were dreadfully, horrifically wrong, and here’s what we’re doing to fix it…” would be a nice start.
    But, I gather that infallibility means never having to say you’re sorry… Either that, or that it’s ok to molest children and young adults.
    So, which is it? Which would you rather defend? Your pick, Billo…
    It was an easy pick, Billo, and you got it wrong – dreadfully, horrifically wrong.

  2. “I criticize church leadership for covering it up and letting it continue. Especially the latter part. If they’d covered it up but made sure the “problem” priests were removed from contact with parishioners, the Church’s behavior would be less heinous. But that’s not what the Church did.”

    Can I get a Hallelujah? Amen.

  3. Strange how the Holy See chose not to see the problem.

    Gulag…Don’t worry about your apostrophe problem..Joanr16 will keep you in line.

    • I know the rule — the possessive of Edwards is Edwards’s — but it’s bothersome to type more than once.

  4. When I started reading, I just assumed we were going to be talking about the RNC’s lesbian stripper problem and were going to be reminded that a close look at the DNC’s books might not be any better. Such a relief to realize that we’re talking about the Catholics and that Spitzer’s Law doesn’t really apply to Dems. Right? Right?

    Please tell me I can keep laughing at the R’s.

    • Such a relief to realize that we’re talking about the Catholics and that Spitzer’s Law doesn’t really apply to Dems. Right? Right?

      Did you not read the post? Did you not notice that I said Spitzer’s Law applies to every group of more than 50 people, no exceptions? Did you not realize “Spitzer’s Law” is named after former Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned ignobly when his prostitution habit became public? And did you not pick up the passing reference to the Dems’ much-tarnished John Edwards? And do you have a point?

      You can laugh at anyone you like, but do remember to duck when karma hurls it back at you. 🙂

  5. First off, my Catholic friends and I were appalled at the appointment of Ratzinger as the Bishop of Rome. (Rumor has it that over a period of years he had appointed a majority of the Cardinals, who ended up electing him Pope – surprise, surprise.)

    Numerous studies have revealed that child molesters are incurable, the prognosis being keep them out of public for the rest of their lives. Did the church know this? It should have, given its ‘problem’ priests/religious.

    I continue to wonder what the penance for child molestation was – as revealed in the Confessional. Three Hail Marys??? Should have been a personal visit by the offender to each wronged child/adult to ask forgiveness. Then off to some isolated monkery to contemplate his sins for the rest of his life.

  6. Great post maha. It reminded me of something i read awhile back. I cant remember who said it and im not going to try and quote it, but here it is and i find it very interesting. By the year 2021, the worlds population will have tripled. The potential for violence will have tripled. The chances of political up heavil will have tripled, and the chances of war will greatly increase. So i guess this preson that wrote the artical thinks that the more people we have, the mre anarchy there will be.

  7. Very good post Maha. I’ve always thought professions that had lots of contact with young children were a pretty natural place for pedophiles to work in. Therefore priests, boy/girl scout masters, YMCA employees, day care workers, anything else in this youth development field are places you should worry about as a parent. Not to say that all of these people are pedophiles – but some and many are. You can just double your clever Spitzer’s Law for professions which deal with children.

  8. Gulag, pay Swami no mind! I’d miss your fresh approach to apostrophes and pluralization. In fact, I’m starting to see the genius in it. English-grammar rules often seem to have been devised by Lewis Carroll. Not worth the bother.

    Speaking of (sensible) rules…. I happen to have a Catholic Bible right here. Hmm, let’s see, here’s something Jesus doth say:

    “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?” Matthew 7:3-4

    Pardon my bluntness, but it’s long past time the political Church just shut the hell up about non-Catholic gay marriage and non-Catholic reproductive decisions. Not only do the Church’s political functionaries have loads of opinions on these matters outside their realm, but they work hard to create law that enforces their will on entire societies. Meanwhile, they refuse to address a wooden beam so massive it’s gone clear through the eye socket, into the brain.

    It’s pretty obvious there’s a terrible problem with arrogance here. The Catholics I’ve most admired were humble, courageous activists who sought justice and safety for the weak and the abused. They never made excuses or whined or compared themselves obscenely to the victims of genocide. Their consciences were clean, and if God has a right hand, they sit at it now. I’m thinking of people like Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, people who really annoyed that great champion of the oppressor, Cardinal Ratzinger.

  9. When I first started to read, I thought you were about to harangue us of the evils of one Tiger Woods. I Wearied of that subject and I was relieved to see you turn it to the C. Church. But when I read “If people in a leadership position saw what was happening, did they acknowledge the bad behavior and take steps to stop it? Or did they try to cover it up but let it continue?” I realized your rant has equal applicability to the PGA. Covering up for the (bad) behaviour of “leaders” seems to be endemic to human nature… No? thing Chenney, think Bush

  10. Pingback: Catholic Church Abuse Scandals « Civilized Conversation

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  12. I’m an ex-Catholic. My doctrinal differences have the nothing to do with child abuse – I can speak to none of personally in any form, and I was an altar boy in the 60’s. (maybe an ugly one, but I never heard the faintest rumor of abuse) But one of my heroes is a Catholic priest, Monsignor McLaughlin, who could have easily been cast in the Hollywood role.

    But he was the real deal. I graduated from Holy Cross High School the last year it was open. There’s an interesting story. The HS was a middle-class affair, the administration (the Monsignor) resisted raising tuition in the face of rising costs – determined to keep the school open to all, not just the wealthy.

    The school was always in the red and always squeaked by, we thought with bake sales and anonymous gifts. As it turns out, the Monsignor was raiding the cemetery fund (which was set to the next millennia) to pay the school deficit. The Bishop got wind of it and the Monsignor was retired, a hatchet man (priest) was sent in and the HS closed at the end of the year.

    I know of other cases where Catholic administrators faced moral quandaries and came down firmly on the side of the people. Certainly, the church should be held to account for the moral failure in child abuse. I make no apology – I am an ex-Catholic. But there’s a lot of good people in that organization who have literally devoted their lives to improving the situations of people (regardless of denomination, I might add). They are worth remembering.

  13. Joan,
    Thank you for appreciating my eccentricities.
    English was my third or fourth language growing up. Plurals are all very easy in each of them.
    Russian and Ukrainian were first. Yes, they have a different alphabet, but once you master that, they’re both phonetic languages, and you never use an apostrophe for anything. German, too, is phonetic for the most part, with occasional double letters; some umlaut’s, but no apostrophe’s – at least not that I remember.
    English, on the other hand is a nightmare. Phonetics and logic go out the window. It was devised, you are right, by Lewis Carroll, with an assist from the Marquis De Sade. And even though I was born here, and dont spel lik uh teebager, I still, on occasion, “screw the pooch.”
    Sorry. Deal with it…
    Love ya all!!! 🙂

  14. Well put Doug Hughes.
    I had a similar exp. growing up, and share your sentiments.

  15. @ Doug and Erinyes. I agree; there are many wonderful, people working within the Catholic Church. Which makes the cover-up even more heinous (if that’s possible) because the fallout, through no fault of their own, undeservedly tarnishes them by association as well.

  16. Here’s the thing that’s percolating through my mind about the Catholic Church.

    You have people who committed crimes.

    You have people who knew that those people committed crimes, and failed to take action. That’s an accessory after the fact – and an accessory before the fact, if the offender re-offended.

    You have a whole bunch of people who’ve refused to take responsibility for either the offenders, or the accessories – people who are, in fact, *angry* that you *dare* talk about those offenders and accessories.

    You’ve got damn few people recognizing the fundamental truth: the Catholic Church, as an institution, engaged in, and allowed, some truly egregious behavior. A lot of people have been hurt – a huge number of people have been hurt. And the church’s response has been “OH NOES WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?”

    Jesus actually taught about this – if your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it away. What, did they think he was talking about *body parts*? No, it’s a *metaphor*. He told them what to do, and they refused to follow it, and now they’re whining and moaning because their own church hierarchy didn’t do what was taught to them. Well, too bad. I feel sorry for the millions of Catholics who did nothing wrong, but they need to recognize that all of these injuries were preventable, if the church had been humble, and willing to take responsibility.

    And there’s still a perfectly acceptable fix – they can dig in, find the rot, and cut it out. They can top whining about how awful people are to talk so nasty, and realize that the church gave those people the opportunity to be so nasty, with various cover-ups. They can top blaming other people, and clean house, now, once and for all, and realize that no one is going to think they’ve done enough. And they can realize realize that if they want anyone’s trust, they have to earn it, and it’s really hard to earn trust. But they’ll get it, if they deserve it – someday.


    I used to be Catholic. I’m glad I’m not any more.

  17. LHW – We are usually in agreement, but I have to disagree. You said:

    “You’ve got damn few people recognizing the fundamental truth: the Catholic Church, as an institution, engaged in, and allowed, some truly egregious behavior.

    Some warped individuals, using the church as a cover, engaged in some truly egregious behavour. The ‘institution’ followed the policy that has worked for over a millenia. They covered it up. This time it’s not working. The media is not hiding it. The police are not working with the church (now). Bishops and priests are speaking out against the cover-up. Catholics are angry. This is a kind of pressure that the Catholic Church has never had to deal with. (Since Martin Luthor, anyway).

    Look at what happens when you blame the ‘institution’. The church will say this is an attack on the church from outside the church, and will try to get everyone in the church to close ranks. And they will. On the other hand, give credit where it is due – most Catholics are sincere and compassionate. FOCUS on the evil where it is – sick people hiding behind robes and a political structure that is unwilling to confront and correct.

    Now people reformers outside the church are on the same side as reformers inside the church, and the pressure MAY become too great for the institution to resist. Change will come. It won’t convince me to become Catholic, but it might save some kids some real grief.

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