Responding to the Catholic Church's latest sex scandal -- the Pennsylvania grand jury report documenting the abuse of hundreds of children and its concealment by the church hierarchy during seven decades -- Hartford Archbishop Leonard P. Blair and other church officials are asking: How could this have happened again?
But the answer is simple and old: Power corrupts, individually and institutionally, and it corrupts everywhere, not just in the church.
Even as the Pennsylvania report was being issued, a prestigious private high school in Lakeville, Conn., the Hotchkiss School, was issuing its own report about the sexual exploitation of students by seven school employees between 1969 and 1992. Recent arrests have disclosed sexual exploitation by Connecticut public school teachers and Correction Department employees. Of course every week brings charges against ordinary people for sexual exploitation of minors. Indeed, it seems entirely possible that during youth nearly everyone is sexually exploited to some extent by an adult.
But it happens more often when no mechanisms are established specifically to guard against it. Even when there are such mechanisms, like surveillance cameras, the tendency is to turn away, as Connecticut has seen recently with scandals of physical abuse in police work and work at the state's criminal psychiatric hospital.
The church's scandals have been worse because it is more secretive and intimidating and less accountable than most institutions and because it is shielded by its sanctity. So if the church ever really wants to diminish abuse, it should establish a mechanism outside its hierarchy for monitoring the hierarchy's conduct with minors and reporting misconduct to both the hierarchy and the police.
Parishioners, preferably parents, could be recruited for this duty and assigned to interview, individually and privately at regular intervals, all minors involved in church activities. Surely the church would gain generally from such a mechanism, quite apart from protection against sexual exploitation.
“The clock is ticking for all of us in church leadership," Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley warned last week. "Catholics have lost patience with us and civil society has lost confidence in us.”
That is a problem not just for the church itself but for the whole country, for these scandals jeopardize the many church institutions on which decent society relies -- the hospitals, schools, and charitable offices, the sinew of communities, which already are suffering social disintegration because of destructive government policies. The scandals may even turn people away from spirituality itself.
So no apology has to be made for saving the church if it remains inspired by God, and as the Catholic writer and parliamentarian Hilaire Belloc observed, "no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight."
Meanwhile, the victims of sexual exploitation deserve more than the pity, coddling and damage awards they have been getting. They must be discouraged from thinking that their lives have been irreparably damaged, for they did nothing wrong and when there is no permanent physical injury, one's emotional distress is only as bad as one makes it.
In these circumstances the old song offers the best advice: "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again." For sexual exploitation in church won't be the last time anyone sees power corrupting. That's life and always will be.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the (Manchester, Conn.) Journal Inquirer.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.