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?
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.
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.