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The political consequences of hiding abuse

How covering up abuse scandals may have affected the politics of the Catholic Church.

Pell allegedly bribed a victim not to report Franco Origlia/Getty Images

On Sunday, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Holy See’s former top diplomat to the United States, published an open letter in several venues alleging that both Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had long been aware of the sexual misconduct of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. These charges follow on the heels of an August 14 grand jury report in Pennsylvania alleging that Catholic dioceses in the state developed systematic practices to cover up sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years.

The accuracy of Viganò’s claims is an open question — many journalists note that they are unsubstantiated, and that Viganò is a longtime rival of Pope Francis. In the current context, though, it seems certain that more allegations of institutional efforts to cover up abuse will surface.

The onslaught of news is stomach-turning and hard to process. Perhaps as a consequence, observers have not fully grappled with an urgent question: How has the cover-up affected the church’s — or individual priests’ — theological and political stances?

Scholars of religion and politics have spent a long time thinking about how institutional pressures affect clergy’s positions on politics and moral issues. They argue, for instance, that Latin American priests who face the threat of competition from Protestant churches are more likely to support social movements that benefit the poor and are less likely to talk about sexuality. In addition, Catholic priests respond to pressure from their own bishops. Meanwhile, clergy are less likely to talk about politics in politically divided congregations.

Yet until now, scholars have largely avoided thinking about how clergy’s desire to hide sexual abuse — from authorities and from the public — might have affected their behavior.

We know that other kinds of powerful groups involved in criminal activity try to influence politics and public debates to protect themselves. Mexico’s drug cartels assassinate journalists and politicians. Corrupt Guatemalan politicians try to keep the media in their pockets and neuter independent tribunals. In short, when groups cover up wrongdoing, they try to control public information and to put a thumb on the scales in any investigations they cannot entirely prevent.

So how might these two goals — to limit information and to block the gears of institutional justice — have affected the church’s theology and politics? I certainly don’t have all the answers at present, and I hope smart people will start studying this question more systematically. At present, though, two possibilities seem likely. Systematic abuse likely led some clergy to a) support compliant politicians, and b) teach their flocks that violations of chastity were a source of private shame.

Most obviously, priests may have supported politicians who were willing to scuttle investigations. For instance, the district attorney of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, halted investigations into the abuse of young boys “in order to prevent unfavorable publicity.” He later admitted he hoped to secure the church’s support for his future candidacies.

Indeed, historically, it appears that public investigations of clergy abuse in Pennsylvania have often fizzled. For that matter, the church’s practice of assigning untrained clergy to investigate their own colleagues was an obvious effort to divert cases from the public system — an effort likely aided by justice officials sympathetic to the church. The net result was likely to weaken the justice system in Pennsylvania.

But the church also tried to prevent investigations entirely. One strategy was to attack those who dared to speak out. The demonstration effect of seeing peers who made formal accusations of abuse punished likely helped to deter future complaints.

Perhaps an even more effective strategy, though, was to prevent molested children and their parents from speaking up forcefully, or at all. Sadly, religious teachings on what are often called “moral values” — that is, issues related to sexuality — may have played a key role. Both the Pennsylvania grand jury report and subsequent reporting make it abundantly clear that a culture of obedience to clergy, and of shame and confusion surrounding sex, kept many children silent.

Did abusive clergy intentionally promote teachings that placed priests on a pedestal and encouraged shame among their victims, in part in order to hide their own crimes? Or was this culture simply a coincidence that unhappily allowed abuse to continue? We cannot, of course, determine what motivated individual clergy to give one lesson or another to schoolchildren decades ago.

However, studies of parish priests do reveal tremendous variation in the extent to which clergy emphasize conservative teachings on sexuality or instead liberal issues related to economic justice. We also know that politics and institutional pressures affect church leaders’ choices of what to emphasize. The desire to prevent sexual abuse scandals was certainly a powerful kind of institutional pressure. It is plausible that clergy subtly — sometimes intentionally, and perhaps sometimes subconsciously — adjusted their religious teachings in order to encourage silence among the faithful.

Ultimately, the church’s tools for covering up wrongdoing differ dramatically from those of drug cartels or corrupt politicians. The church’s arsenal involves moral and cultural authority, rather than physical weapons or money. Abusive clergy are not likely to assassinate leakers or to try to bribe the media. Nonetheless, the church’s history of cover-ups may have had pervasive and wide-ranging impacts on political institutions and political culture.