When the cover-up is almost as despicable as the crime

As a recovering Catholic (and educated by the  nuns of Mt. Mary Immaculate Academy, a convent boarding school), I’ve been closely following the systemic child sexual abuse scandals that have disgraced this church for many years.

And as somebody who has spent over three decades in the public relations field, I’ve also been following one inept church leader after another who conspired to protect predator priests in some kind of bizarrely inexcusable attempt to safeguard the reputation of their institution. This was commonly done by simply transferring known abusers from parish to parish where they could then find fresh new victims. Recently, I read this conclusion in a famous report:

“The most saddening finding is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders for the safety and welfare of the child victims. There was no attempt to investigate, to identify victims, or to protect any other children from similar conduct.”

The trouble is, these words were not written about the Roman Catholic church. 

They were instead written recently about Penn State University‘s willing failure to respond to a known child abuser let loose on the campus. The words represent the first paragraph of the Freeh report, the result of a comprehensive independent investigation of the University’s handling of the Sandusky scandal. Penn State’s former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has since been convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse of young boys under his charge.

When I read the Freeh report, I was struck by how universal its condemnation was of men who willingly sit passively by and deliberately choose to do nothing in the face of the most unspeakable depravity. For example, the Freeh report said:

“The most powerful people failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed the abuser’s activities from authorities, and they exhibited a striking lack of empathy for victims.”

Although written about senior Penn State officials (President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President‐Finance and Business Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy Curley and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno) these words perfectly capture the reality of senior Catholic officials who also failed to protect children being harmed by its own sexual predators, chose not to report the abusers to the police, and exhibited a “striking lack of empathy for victims”.

And speaking of a striking lack of empathy for victims, consider the stupefyingly offensive excuse of retired Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, who himself was the direct supervisor of 58 priests accused of sexual assaults on minors under his watch:

“We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature.”

Reactions like this from ostensibly intelligent, educated, well-respected men make me despair for their profoundly toxic cultures – whether academic, sports or religious – that embrace this total and consistent disregard by most senior leaders for the safety and welfare of child victims.”

The Freeh report went on to say:

“It is reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to child abuse from the authorities and the public at large. The avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity is the most significant, but not the only, cause for this failure to protect child victims and report to authorities.”

Again, this was written about Penn State officials (Curley and Schultz, for example, stated as far back as 2001 that the “humane” thing to do was to not contact police about Sandusky’s suspected criminal behaviour).

But Freeh’s statements are also clearly applicable to the Vatican’s repeated decisions to cover up crimes so as to avoid the damaging publicity that criminal charges would surely provoke.

Both institutions also featured senior decision-makers who have chosen deliberate, systemic protection of the guilty instead of protecting their innocent victims.

In hindsight, the lesson for both is pretty obvious Public Relations 101.

As soon as you determine that your organization’s wisest course of action is to desperately hide the truth instead of taking swift and appropriate action, your reputation is already doomed.

For when the truth does come out (which, just as my mother always warned, it will), the reputation you have worked so hard to protect will be more irreparably savaged than you could have ever imagined – as soon as your cover-up attempts are revealed. You only have to look at the furor surrounding Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky case to see how every aspect of the doomed reputation containment strategy dreamed up by the Board of Trustees, their senior administration, and millions of dollars worth of high-powered crisis management consultants turned out to be, of course, a catastrophic failure.

Ironically, in an eerie coincidence, Sandusky’s criminal conviction in June came on the very same day another landmark child sex abuse case was decided, also in Pennsylvania. A jury in Philadelphia found Monsignor William Lynn guilty of one count of endangering the welfare of a child, making him the first senior U.S. Roman Catholic Church official to ever be convicted for covering up child sex abuse.

One wonders when other identical criminal charges against all other church officials – up to and including Pope Benedict himself – who actively participated in the massive cover-up of sexual predators will be issued.  My guess: don’t hold your breath.

Instead, a frightening example of what’s been called the ‘patriarchal apartheid’ of the Catholic church is the recent excommunication of a nun working as a nurse at a Catholic hospital in Arizona last year because she approved an emergency abortion last year to save the life of a critically ill patient.

Ironically, although it has taken years, sometimes decades, to bring any sex-abusing predator priests to justice, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated by the Catholic church in a matter of mere months.

One also wonders how many of those known predator priests have been excommunicated like the disobedient Sister Margaret was? My guess: approximately zero.

But Sister Margaret may not be alone.

Last year, the Vatican launched an apostolic visitation,” or investigation, of every one of America’s 60,000 religious sisters, accused with having what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls “a feminist spirit” and “a secular mentality”.

At a time when the church’s male leadership can be blamed for the worst examples of incompetence throughout the modern history of professional public relations practice, even the modest roles accorded to female clerics have somehow come under attack from old men wearing funny hats.

Meanwhile, in PR circles, Penn State is already being called a “stigmatized brand”.

The school’s very name is now synonymous with the ugliest of human evil and – equally damaging – the institution’s proactive and inexcusable attempts to protect that evil.

The outcry of spoiled brat Penn State fans over recent NCAA sanctions against their school’s football program is yet another example of the failure of so many to comprehend just who the real victims in this tragedy actually are.

In fact, it seems disturbingly like the Vatican’s sputtering defense against attacks on the Holy Mother Church as if they believe the church were itself the victim.

Penn State now boasts a stained and slimy reputation that will likely need at least a decade to dry out.

Whose cover-up is more despicable?

© 2102 Carolyn Thomas – The Ethical Nag – www.ethicalnag.org


NEWS UPDATE:  October 10, 2012 –  Unrepentant Sandusky Sentenced to 30-60 Years in Penn State Sex Abuse Case

See also:


14 thoughts on “When the cover-up is almost as despicable as the crime

  1. Covering up crime is common when it serves a political purpose, the Catholic Church, Penn State got caught and in the minds of a few that was an even greater crime than the crime itself.

    These institutions are not alone in covering up crime – blatently ignoring victims and enabling the criminal over the victim. An elected or appointed public officials cover up crime when it involves one of their own or it may bring sunlight on their own inadequacy, their friends and supporters gather around to assist in the coverup until it gets close enough to involve them in the act. It is the modern way.

    No conscience, no moral convictions, no soul…

    • Maybe it’s an innate urge? When I was a little girl, I accidentally broke a coffee cup but instead of just ‘fessing up’ to my mother, I wrapped the broken pieces in a towel and hid them (in a stupid place! on top of the fridge – where my Mum soon found my “evidence”). The difference: I was just nine years old and not a mature adult engaging in illegal cover up of criminal activity.

      • That was an act that only hurt you and your Mom, it didn’t take anyone’s life, alter anyone’s life.

        Good analysis of the situation.

  2. Carolyn, I always enjoy reading your thoughts which are much like mine.

    I was raised Catholic and am not a practicing one. My Parents are devout Catholics. The Nuns I know have been upset about what is coming out of the Vatican. The Catholic Nuns are the moral authority left in the Church. They should be running it. The Vatican is totally out of touch with reality.

  3. Thank you! I could have SWORN I read the pope was right in with the rest of the guys in the great cover-up! I read it in my newspaper but just one small – tiny, really – mention, then POOF! Silence, until I began to wonder if I dreamed it up. Is it too much for even the non-Catholic public to stand? To hear that even the pope sheltered and passed around these pedophiles?

    Why isn’t anyone talking about this? That is, about the pope specifically? I say, throw him and all of them in the slammer where every child molester belongs! And I consider anyone covering up and passing on a molester to be a molester himself. Why aren’t we prosecuting more of these creeps? At least the ones who aren’t dead or have dementia. So many in that camp, this going back such a long, long time.

    Makes me sick.

    • Yes, the Pope himself has been implicated, as I wrote here: “Abuse claims investigated in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, where Pope Benedict was then Archbishop Ratzinger from 1977 – 1982, reveal that he dealt with a priest accused of child molestation by sending him to therapy and then allowing him to resume pastoral duties, at which time he was again accused of molestation and finally prosecuted.”

  4. And going after the nuns – that’s gotta be an effort to distract people – ya think? Get people’s minds off the precious priests and bare their teeth at the nuns? The NERVE of that nun, saving that woman’s life and all. How dare she! Oh this is a hot topic for me. These people make my blood boil.

    • Oh, me too. Don’t even get me started on those evil nuns with “a feminist spirit” and “secular mentality” who need to be tracked down and openly punished, compared to predator priests whose criminal activity is both tolerated and covered up by the very church officials who are interrogating the nuns. Why any thinking person would continue to support this morally corrupt religion is quite beyond my comprehension…

  5. Is there some reason there weren’t major double height headlines in all the newspapers about the pope’s hand in all this horrible business? Why did I have to happen upon a 1 inch nugget of info on the pope and then have it vanish so thoroughly that I thought maybe I dreamed it?

    Another question: Does anyone know if the nuns had any knowledge of this? How did they cope with being a nun in the midst of priests who were doing such awful things – molesting boys and allowing molesting priests to molest boys? How can they tolerate knowing their own pope was in on the whole awful mess?

  6. Another comment about Penn State. Sorry if I’m too far afield. I wonder if anyone feels the way I do, though.

    I seem to be in a decided minority of one, according to everything I read, in that I don’t understand why the consequences of the crimes of Sandusky and Paterno and others should fall on the school and the sport and thus, on the students.

    A shocking number of individuals from Penn State allowed this abuse to go on, but the school, as an entity, did not. Neither did any students, much less all the students. The football team did nothing wrong, either. Why are the students and those in particular who are involved in sports, especially football, being punished?

    I’m no football fan nor am I in favor of spending such massive amounts of a school’s money on sports, but this isn’t about that. The students are paying the price for these awful crimes and yet they were either just innocent bystanders or they were victims. I think this is very unjust and bothers me more than a little. It seems the blame is being spread waaaay out where it has no place whatsoever.

    So why are students paying for other people’s crimes? Am I missing something?

    • Hi Bev – you’re not alone; many have also questioned this. The best explanation I’ve heard concerns the pervasive “football culture” that was allowed to flourish at Penn (and at most other U.S. colleges). This hero worship – known as “the Penn State way” – was partly responsible for those who knew about the Sandusky crimes NOT coming forward: the “too big to fail” nonsense, along with widespread tolerance for intolerable behaviour of athletes off the field, and for the lack of well-established “student code of conduct” enforcement when it came to sports team members who felt entitled to avoid facing the consequences of their individual actions. In the last decade alone, 27 Penn players have been convicted of or have pleaded guilty to a combined 45 criminal charges, for example. Former Director of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey explained it very clearly here.

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