Sexual Harassment Allegations Deserve Investigations and Accountability

Buried under the rubbish of news about US Tax law hijinks was Cardinal Bernard Law’s funeral.  Cardinal Law’s fall from grace arrived as news surfaced of his complicity in enabling abusive priests in his archdiocese to sexually abuse kids.  In 2002, the drip-drip-drip of daily scandals in the Catholic church generated outrage that, at the time, all but guaranteed Cardinal Law could no longer leverage his contacts, charm, and reputation to dodge accountability for offenses in the same way he and so many other clergy had previously done.  So, he traded in Boston for Rome, where the Pope gave him a golden parachute to live out his days in the manner befitting a Cardinal, and where the outrage of American press was muffled across an ocean and cultural barrier.

You’d have thought that we learned from the sins of the church since those days – sins which flourished in the dark recesses of secrecy that were the norm for a hierarchy like the Catholic Church.  To be sure, the folks this secrecy benefitted most were not the faithful, the parishioners, the victims of pedophile priests, nor even (usually) the priests themselves, who were placed in situations where they were assured to reoffend – like punishing a perennially inebriated clergyman by putting him in charge of the altar wine. The system was one which sidestepped accountability for actions by (1) draping them in the mantle of repentance and forgiveness, then (2) transferring the accused to another assignment or post, removing him from the scene of the crime in such a hasty manner as to disregard even the risks inherent in his new environment.  This triage maneuver benefitted one person – and that was the person who made all the decisions on how to handle it – the bishop.

When Cardinal Law’s duplicity was exposed in 2002, he was permitted to resign and slink back to Rome, thereby making moot any more burning questions like, “What did you know?” and “When did you know it?”  A high profile and unceremonious resignation is one sure way to sweep pending problems under the rug and prevent them from generating any more news cycles. But these resignations do not change cultures.  What changes cultures is investigations, exposure, sunlight, and acknowledgement.  In the case of the Catholic Church, the cultural change only came when its bottom line was threatened.  To date, 13 American Catholic Diocese have declared bankruptcy (including 3 of Minnesota’s 6 dioceses) due to sexual abuse violations which resulted in more than $3 Billion in settlements.  Based on population calculations and assumptions about regional church attendance it can be assumed that over 80% of Minnesota Catholic’s Sunday plate contributions now go toward paying for settlements to cover sexually abusive clergy.  That’s the kind of thing that generates enough outrage to make even the most reluctant orthodoxy see the light.

I recalled this lesson in the midst of so many high-profile resignations in entertainment and politics this year.  The #metoo movement had generated a rage similar to that seen from Catholics in 2002 and thereafter.  And, just as the Catholic church had tried in years up to 2002, leadership attempted to stem the tide of outrage via resignations, mandatory trainings, and talking points which included phrases like “zero tolerance” and “never again.”

Large institutions inexorably slouch on this lazy azimuth. Remember the Navy ships playing bumper cars in the Pacific? Remember how the Navy solved it? That’s right, a high profile removal from office, followed by "remedial measures" for problems of which they were aware before the collisions happened. This is classic miltary standard operating procedure.  The monkeys in the Pentagon needed the problem to go away as soon as possible and there’s no better way to do that than with the biggest tool in any leader’s toolbox - the scapegoat. Scapegoats are so handy because they conveniently deflect the high-pressure accountability atmosphere in the wake of a high-profile scandal.

But resignations generally only abate external heat, like the media. In the wake of a major SNAFU, there remain internal stakeholders – some of whom had been raising red flags for years but whose complaints were squelched in favor of comity, efficiency, and progress.  These folks would need to be silenced because, after all, we’re not seriously still talking about taking measures that are necessary to change how we do things, are we? Perish the thought!

This hypocrisy, this fear of change, this duplicity-in-the-service-of-the-status-quo, is the hallmark of every institution.  The bigger and older the institution, the bigger and older the hypocrisy.  And they invariably always follow the same rubric in their perennially mad effort to sanctify their hold on power and sanctification of the status quo which guarantees that power.

I’ve lived my life in the service of, and parallel to, large institutions including the Catholic Church, the United States Military, city government, and state government and, with very few exceptions, they all tend to operate the same way in a crisis.  First, they find a scapegoat. Sometimes it’s easier to agree on one than others, but they always find one, and the public has been trained to expect it. Next, they implement some alleviative remedy, such as “mandatory training.” These mandatory trainings never generate results. Let me repeat that. Never. In the military we called these mandatory trainings “Death by Powerpoint,” and they weren’t taken seriously by a single person in the chain of command – including by the One Star General who got a positive bullet point on his last review because he ordered that the mandatory training be implemented. Sometimes the unit would spend countless hours and dollars to train the “Master Trainer” who returned to the unit like Moses from Mt. Sinai, only to find his comrades in arms dismissive of his new-found religion.

This is why recent attention to, and forward movement on, sexual harassment claims will wither on the vine as long as it follows the same, tired, institutional rubric of (1) outrage (2) resignations (3) mandatory trainings (4) Move on (5) Rinse, repeat.  Folks who demanded Al Franken’s resignation did not engender accountability. To the contrary, they squelched it.  What has been in order was an investigation to determine (1) the breadth, and depth, of his actions, and (2) the appropriate remedy and/or punishment.  It is these investigations, and the process they display, that allows a group or a nation to decry or absolve the actions they reveal.  Without that process, there can be no national conversation that resets boundaries and punishments. Possibly even more significant is this supplementary fact: when leaders call for resignations, and implement remedial measures like mandatory trainings or reassignment, there is one person that leader is thinking about protecting: himself.  An investigation invariably leads up the chain of command with questions like “What did you know?” and “When did you know it?”  Those questions become very uncomfortable for leaders, and immediate summary action on a scapegoat radically reduces the risk of that happening to the leader. It also has the corollary benefit of relieving pressure by feeding an immediate and severe conclusion to observers.

But summary actions, like resignations, do not develop commonly held values. A resignation does not change a culture of sexual harassment, it merely reflects the fact that a high profile person fears being accused of impropriety, and that reality has existed as long as there have been high profile people.

This is why due process, even due process for people we abhor, is important.  Without it, we fail to maintain the values that hold the group together.  Arbitrary justice, for arbitrary actions, lead to arbitrary values. And then a generation later we all wonder how we got here.  That’s how the Catholic Church ended up in bankruptcy – both literally and morally.  Unless we subject ourselves to a radical self-examination and reset our values accordingly, or are forced to do so like the Catholic Church was, we are bound to end up just like it.



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