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How to Ruin Your Moral Authority

July 27, 2012, 6:00 AM

On Tuesday, Monsignor William Lynn, former secretary of clergy for the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was sentenced to three to six years in prison for his role in shielding pedophile priests from the law and reassigning them to positions where they could harm more children. At least one boy suffered years of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, Edward Avery, whom Lynn assigned to duty in the boy's parish without warning any of the parishioners, despite knowing that Avery had a history of pedophilia.

While I wish the sentence had been longer, this is a good start. To my knowledge, Lynn is the first Catholic church official ever to be convicted for covering up the deeds of others who were abusing children, rather than for directly abusing children himself. This is an excellent precedent, one that should serve as a shot across the bow to the Catholic hierarchy letting them know that they're not above the law, that they can't expect impunity if they facilitated the rape of children by known predators in their midst.

It may take some time for this lesson to sink in, however. At his conviction, Lynn showed no acknowledgement of guilt. He claimed in court that "I did my best" but that it "was not good enough" to stop the abuse of boys - as if child rape was something that just happened, like weather, rather than a crime that was made possible only because he chose to place a dangerous person in a position of power without warning the innocent people in his way. Lynn's lawyers had asked for him to not be sent to prison, arguing that it "would serve no purpose" - a tacit admission that he still doesn't think he did anything wrong. The archdiocese of Philadelphia also issued a statement calling Lynn's sentence too heavy and asserting that "fair-minded people" will question it.

The church's "mistakes were made" attitude of denial, blame-shifting and obfuscation stands in sharp contrast to another body dealing with the fallout of a sex-abuse conviction this week: the NCAA. On Monday, the association imposed severe sanctions on Penn State for the university's role and the role of its former head coach, Joe Paterno, in covering up years of child molestation by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Just as with the church, Paterno and other Penn State officials had credible evidence of a sex predator in their midst, but chose silence, ensuring that his crimes would continue for much longer than they otherwise would have. The church did this to protect its reputation as an infallible moral authority; Penn State and Paterno did it to protect the college's all-powerful, cash-cow football team from scandal.

But unlike the church, the NCAA acted with integrity when this came to their attention. They didn't promote Paterno to a cushy job to reward him, nor did they quietly transfer Sandusky to another college. They punished the people who covered up for these misdeeds, something which to date the church hasn't done in any case. And when the truth came out, the administration of Penn State admitted their failings, rather than acting as if this were an unforeseeable, random tragedy. As I said on Twitter, the NCAA has proven this week that a college football league has more moral credibility than the Roman Catholic church when it comes to child abuse.

The similarities in these two cases are more than coincidental. I imagine that any sufficiently powerful institution, sooner or later, reaches a point where it becomes tempting to cover up crimes by an insider to protect its own reputation from scandal. But when the truth gets out, this only makes the scandal much worse and does much more damage to the institution than it otherwise would have. The NCAA and Penn State have learned this lesson painfully. The Catholic church, which has far more riding on its reputation as a moral beacon, is still refusing to learn it.

Image credit: John Prassas

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