The Cover-up’s Usually Worse Than The Crime

August 24, 2018

One of the most widely adapted biblical quotes flows from Jesus addressing believers in the Gospel according to John, Chapter 8, Verse 32: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus’ instruction that truth will set you free often is cited beyond its religious context. Now it has special resonance in the wake of the statewide investigative grand jury report covering decades of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests and cover-ups by the hierarchy in six Pennsylvania dioceses, including Scranton. The issue is not just truth but the path to revealing it — transparency. One of the most remarkable aspects of the grand jury investigation is that church leaders only fully came to grips with their egregious mishandling of the crisis through the power of a secular, rather than religious institution — the criminal justice system. More than 16 years ago, the Boston Archdiocese publicly faced the truth only after intervention by another civic institution — The Boston Globe. In the years between the Boston and Pennsylvania revelations, the church established some reforms but never publicly acknowledged the scope of the abuse, not only in Pennsylvania but around the world. It is telling that bishops now cite a commitment to transparency as a means to restore confidence in the church within their congregations. Scranton Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, for example, said Tuesday that an independent panel’s report on its investigation into former Bishop James C. Timlin’s handling of abuse complaints will be public. And the diocese has released a list of 70 people, rather than the 59 named in the grand jury report, including several lay people, who are accused of sexual offenses against children. Historically, the lack of transparency has fueled the crisis. The grand jury subpoenaed hundreds of thousands of relevant documents that had to be extracted from diocesan safes. And untold numbers of depositions in civil cases, in which church officials have had to answer to victims’ complaints, remain under seal as part of settlements that, nationally, total more than $3 billion. There is a secular corollary to Jesus’ teaching that the truth shall set you free; it is that the cover-up usually is worse than the crime. It’s a bitter lesson that should guide not only the church, but any number of other institutions, private and public, that court disaster through a lack of transparency.

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