This is a culture in which individuals accused of wrongdoing are destroyed even if the normal mechanisms of oversight and investigation conclude that they are not guilty.
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A few days ago a star choreographer for Britain’s Royal Ballet died at the age of 35. Liam Scarlett’s career had been taking off, with widely praised ballet productions under his belt and more in the pipeline from all over the world. He was the product of an intensely specialized education, having trained as a ballet dancer from the age of eight, successfully making the transition from performance to choreography.
Then he was accused of sexual harassment, within the Royal Ballet. An independent investigation took place, which concluded that there “were no matters to pursue in relation to alleged contact with students of The Royal Ballet School”.
This was not good enough, however. The Royal Ballet, followed by the other institutions which had commissioned work from him, cut all ties with him and informed him that his work would never be seen again. With his professional life in this tiny, specialized world essentially over, Scarlett killed himself.
I have no special information about Scarlett or this case. Perhaps there were some special features of the case I don’t know about which vindicate the Royal Ballet’s actions. It is part of a pattern of “cancel culture,” however, which cannot be explained away. This is a culture in which individuals accused of wrongdoing are destroyed, in terms of reputation and career, even if the normal mechanisms of oversight and investigation conclude that they are not guilty.
The same thing has happened in the Church. Priests who are accused of wrongdoing can find themselves thrown out of dioceses or forbidden to exercise public ministry, on the basis not of the conclusion of a proper canonical process, but simply of an accusation.
It seems only yesterday that priests were protected in the Church, and abuse accusations against them were ignored. It was equally recently that similar accusations against employees of secular institutions were ignored. In some cases it was the accusers who found themselves being sanctioned, while the institution refused to look into the claims.
As a matter of fact, this is still happening in many places, and I think it is highly likely that an institution which ignores complaints about some people, except to punish the people making them, will simultaneously throw other people under the bus at the first sign of complaints against them. This is because I do not see these two reactions to complaints as diametrically opposed, but as very similar, and emerging from the same psychology.
The problem is that many dioceses and secular institutions have not emerged from the “us and them” attitude which pays no attention to truth and justice, and seeks only to protect an inner circle: the attitude which caused the clerical and secular abuse-crises alike. They have simply adjusted the boundaries of who is regarded as “one of us”: who is on the inside of the protected sphere, and who is outside.
The protected sphere is now much smaller than before. If it previously included all priests, or all teachers in a school, or scout-masters, or sports coaches, or whatever, now the outer defenses of these institutions have been abandoned, and they are only concerned to defend the inner-most circle: the bishop and the most senior clergy, and the senior management of other institutions. The fact that they are prepared at the drop of a hat to throw more junior colleagues to the wolves is not an indication of a new concern for justice. It reflects a ruthless determination to keep the wolves away from the really important people, whatever the cost.
It doesn’t always work. Indeed, in the longer term it is counter-productive. It undermines collegiality, encourages vexatious complaints, and leaves some real cases of abuse wholly unresolved. It is not the reaction of fully rational and upright people. It is the way an abusive institutional culture deals with a threat. It is what I would expect to see happen in a cult or a criminal gang if it were seriously threatened: The senior members would sacrifice the junior ones to save their own skins.
Coming to terms with the real issues, getting to grips with proper procedures, fairness, and transparency, aren’t attractive options for those trained up in a culture of abuse and of covering it up. That is the very last thing they want to do, since the people at the center of these organizations are tainted in all sorts of ways. If they have been there a long time and have risen to a position of seniority, it would be surprising if they were not.
The new strategy of defending only the inner circles, the bishops themselves and a handful of cronies, at the expense of every other aspect of the institution, is doing a new kind of harm to the Church. If these inner defenses fail, as in some cases they certainly deserve to, the loss of the Church’s public moral authority will be complete. But right now it doesn’t seem as though real reform is going to happen in any other way.