A curious thing sometimes happens to organizations when they mature. They can take on a life of their own. Anyone who has ever been involved in any sort of organization that is run by committee can probably think of an example or two. People start out with an enterprise, and decide that this enterprise needs organizing. They get together, divide tasks, and in this way try to pursue the enterprise more efficiently. There are obstacles that prevent the organization from doing this, and they are dealt with. As a group of people working together in an organized fashion can do this more efficiently, the original goal is brought about quicker and better.
But then something odd can happen. People start to think that the organization to attain the goal has the same importance as the goal itself, and forget tha the organization is only the means by which the goal is pursued. People assume that what is good for the organization is good for the enterprise. And pretty soon, there is a strange drift in the organizations actions. They begin to pursue goals of their own that do not necessarily have that much to do with the goals they were originally started for. Bureaucracies are a good example of this – they are famously capable of becoming more interested in gaining more funding for their particular department than in ensuring the business of government is done efficiently and cheaply.
Churches are especially prone to this kind of intention-drift. This is not surprising, because more than any other organization, they claim their goal is an absolutely good one – in this case the eternal happiness of all human beings.
But on what basis do they claim this? They say that they believe they hold the proper interpretation of the word of god which in turn enables them to guide the rest of humanity in the proper way to live life. They say they believe this because a lot of other people have believed it in the past, and because they feel it is right. I have not found a better or stronger argument to date that any church offers. And yet, based on this argument, they claim not only that they are equipped to tell all humanity how to live properly, but also that the organization created to further this goal shares in the absolute benevolence that it claims for its teachings.
This is where we enter dangerous grounds. If the church, by merit of being the only purveyor of eternal happiness, is an absolute good, then anything done to harm it is an absolute evil. Protecting it is always a good thing to do. Also, because the happiness it spreads is eternal, the temporary unhappiness caused by any sacrifice it may require is but a trivial thing in comparison. In other words, the church is more important that its believers.
A recent example of this kind of logic in action is the controversy surrounding Sean Brady, a catholic cardinal and one of the most senior clerics in Ireland. Back in 1975, when he was a priest and a teacher, he interviewed two children who had reported that they had been raped by Brendan Smyth, a catholic priest. After their statements were heard, the young victims were made to sign an oath of secrecy, on pain of excommunication. No report was made to the police. Smyth went on to commit further acts of child abuse, until finally being found guilty of 91 charges of sexual abuse by Belfast and Dublin courts.
Brady was in his thirties back then, a young, highly educated priest with a promising career in the church ahead of him. The doctrine at the time was one of total secrecy – he was merely following orders. If he had reported the crimes, his career in the church would probably have been severely curtailed: he certainly would not have made it to cardinal.
Perhaps this happened because a young priest did not want to rock the boat. But I think the problem lies deeper still. Brady is refusing to resign now that all this has been found out – he still does not think he did anything very wrong. He followed church law, obeyed his superiors, and trusted that the church would sort it out. So he helped threaten a 10-year old and a 14-year old with eternal damnation, kept his head down, and let the church hurriedly shuffle Smyth somewhere out of harms way. All of this was considered justifiable – and is still considered justifiable – to this eminent catholic leader, all in the name of safeguarding the church from scandal.
We can only assume that the reasoning is more or less like this: The actions of fallible men should not mar the good work of the infallible church. To allow the good work to be marred would be a catastrophe that would affect millions of people for all eternity, while threatening a few victimized children into silence only affects a few persons for a short period of time. It seems reasonable, therefore, to ensure that the children remain quiet by threatening them with eternal damnation. The immense injustice they are thus forced to suffer lasts a mere lifetime, and is experienced by only two individuals while the good achieved by this lasts for all eternity and is experienced by millions. Making sure that major crimes never get reported to the police is also acceptable – the law of god and the good of the church supersede the laws of a mere nation for the same reasons. The failure to report such crimes to the police, and engaging in a conspiracy to conceal evidence of a crime, are also justifiable because these things were done in the name of the church.
It is not a young mans concern for his career that is the issue here (although I am sure it did not help) but the firm belief that the church, the organization, is more important than the welfare of the believers it is supposed to look after. While the rules for handling child molestation cases in the catholic church have changed, the underlying ideology – that of a church is an absolute good in itself – has remained the same, and seems unlikely to change. And as long as it remains in place – in fact as long as all religions claim to hold the keys to absolute benevolence – it will remain an open invitation to justify atrocities in its name.