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Friday, February 08, 2013


Recent news has exposed a truth about religion that we sometimes forget. Churches act like any organic institution. They deem the most important goal as the survival of the institution. Expedience overcomes ethical considerations if the threat is perceived to be to the institution. In this, churches are no different than dictatorships, police departments, armies, corporations, or any other bureaucracy. 

Cover-ups of misdeeds are justified by institutional logic. The church is needed and therefore is good. If someone within the organization, especially acting under the color of organizational authority, does wrong, the impulse of the hierarchy is to protect the image of the organization. If that goal is perceived to be best served by concealment of the wrongdoing, so be it.  

This was the motivation of the French army’s deceit in the Dreyfuss Affair, Chevrolet’s concealment of the Corvair’s defects, tobacco companies denial of medical evidence, and the Nixon administration’s crimes in Watergate, among innumerable examples throughout history.  

In New York, the Hasidic community recently has been shaken by exposure of the practice of deterrence and punishment of those who complain of abuses by rabbis and other men upon girls and women. Claiming the right to self-correction which all religious institutions have defended, the organization has protected the culprits and harassed accusers, contrary to secular law. “Abuse Verdict Topples a Hasidic Wall of Secrecy” New York Times, December 10, 2012.

The ongoing saga of sexual abuse cases by Catholic priests is marked by the long time policy of concealment of the abuses by church officials which compounded the crimes. The asserted rationale given for the cover-ups is interesting, if not completely credible, given the self-serving nature of the reasoning. Priest pedophiles were provided counseling and treatment in the belief that religious re-education and prayer could “cure” the moral failing perceived as inherent in “conditions” such as homosexuality. The claim was undercut by the frequent practice of repeated re-assignments of offending priests to different parishes despite reports of continuing abuses.  

California’s law mandating reporting of child sexual abuse claims by clergy as well as psychotherapists and school officials went into effect in 1974, forty years ago. Churches were thus on notice that their cover-ups were serious criminal acts. Because it is accepted that recidivism among pederasts is very high, knowingly risking exposure of children to known abusers is considered as serious a crime as child molestation itself. 

Statutes of limitations may have run on many of the abuses revealed recently because they go back even beyond forty years. (However, recent laws have extended the statute to certain abuse cases.) The Catholic Church seems more concerned with the financial ramifications of the scandals. Several dioceses in the United States have declared bankruptcy in efforts to limit their liability for law suits arising from claims by victims.  

Like many of my criminal clients, Cardinal Mahoney’s defense is to mitigate by pointing to his many good works. Fine, I am all for considering mitigation, which does not excuse or justify or even explain, but puts a whole life of a wrongdoer in perspective. 

Unlike the Church, I would not condemn, excommunicate, torture, or burn at the stake a sinner or deviant from the faith. However, nor would I excuse the sins merely because the sinner confessed or repented or claimed to have “found religion” after his crimes.    

1 comment:

  1. Mr Mortimer:

    Thank you for this well-written, thoughtful, and insightful op-ed!

    It brought to mind the corruption within the Catholic Church (in the extreme measures that was taken to **conceal** their pedophile priests).

    I must wonder, though, how the hierarchies of the Catholic Church were able to "get away with" such abhorrent crimes with such absolute criminal impunity?!!

    In my humble opinion, the (church) actions and **inactions** is reminiscent of an organized criminal element ie: mafia, and as such, they ALL should have been brought up on RICO charges!!

    Hmmm...One must wonder... WHY NOT?? Dollars and cents first thought comes to my mind!!

    It seems to me that religion is above the law (or in many cases “is” the law) in the United States – all the rights, none of the responsibilities!