Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Real Lesson of the John Jay Report

This is how ethical lessons are lost. The news media, always enthralled with numbers, concentrated on percentages and cumulative data in describing the findings of the recently released Jay Report, the study commissioned by the Catholic Church to document the extent of child sexual abuse by priests since 1950. About 4% of all priests were implicated in such abuse; over 10,000 children were abused. In all likelihood, both numbers are low, but enough about statistics. The significance of the scandal is and has always been how Church leadership betrayed its most vulnerable charges and its most basic moral principles to protect colleagues and the institution, placing the reputation of the Catholic Church before the mission of the Church.

Accompanying the Jay Report (named after the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York) was the report of the specially-appointed National Review Board, which rightly condemned Church leadership for facilitating the obsessions of predator priests.

But neither report gave the most important statistic: how many people in the Church knew what was going on, and remained silent? We know it was more than just the bishops directly involved, because knowledge of the problem had been circulating outside the Church for decades. Other bishops knew what some of their colleagues were tolerating. Cardinals knew, and not just those like Boston’s Cardinal Law who were actively abetting the molesters. It is very likely that the Pope knew. What percentage of the Church was really involved in this institutional failure? The actual molesters were the smallest part of the problem.

The problem is one of organizational culture, and the reports tell a story of a top to bottom collapse of moral and ethical leadership. Despite the forcefulness of the criticism of the role of the bishops, the Church is undoubtedly counting on the raw numbers to frame the discussion from now on. “Four percent? Well, there are bad apples in every barrel. Four-thousand priests? Thank goodness we’ve finally flushed them out of the system.” The culture that enabled these priests, however, and the church leaders who knowingly looked the other way remain behind. If that does not change, and changing the entrenched ethics of an organization’s culture is neither an easy process nor a speedy one, this will not be the last Jay Report.

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