Public Choice and the Abuse Scandal
Obviously, the investigation is ongoing, but this doesn’t look good:
A widening child sexual abuse inquiry in Europe has landed at the doorstep of Pope Benedict XVI, as a senior church official acknowledged Friday that a German archdiocese made “serious mistakes” in handling an abuse case while the pope served as its archbishop. The archdiocese said that a priest accused of molesting boys was given therapy in 1980 and later allowed to resume pastoral duties, before committing further abuses and being prosecuted. Pope Benedict, who at the time headed the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, approved the priest’s transfer for therapy. A subordinate took full responsibility for allowing the priest to later resume pastoral work, the archdiocese said in a statement.
What’s sort of surprising to me is that, even assuming the worst is true, anyone would be particularly surprised by this. Although the Church leadership is fond of saying that all sorts of other institutions have experienced child sexual abuse, I cannot think of any organization that has had the same history of both (1) covering it up and (2) repeatedly sending the wolves back out to tend the sheep. But that pattern seems to me to follow very naturally from the status of lay people within the Church’s bureaucracy.
Conservative legal scholars are constantly harping on what public choice theory teaches us about political structures and the perverse incentives they can create for public actors. But conservative Catholic legal scholars — who are often very skeptical of government bureaucracies — seem extremely reluctant to apply those same insights to the Church’s hierarchy. Given the nearly total lack of meaningful input into Church governance by lay people (short of the largely unutilized power to conditionally withhold donations), is it any real shock that the celibate clergy made decisions in the abuse scandal that largely track the interests of the celibate clergy. And that the abuses were worse when the children involved had no families to look after them and were therefore particularly vulnerable? For anyone who thinks that public choice theory offers even a modicum of insight (and, to be clear, I am skeptical of its reach), it would be surprising if it were any other way.
Why would the Church be exempt from the consequences of the perverse incentives created by a bureaucracy with almost no mechanism for democratic feedback? The popes and bishops are, after all, human beings. I suppose the argument is that the Holy Spirit is somehow looking out in a special way for the Church such that the normal tendencies of human motivation don’t apply. The thing about providential arguments like that is that you can never tell where things are going to go next. Perhaps the growing scandal rocking the Church is itself the work of providence and will put enough pressure on the institution to take a second or third look at its autocratic governance system. If so, THAT will be the work of the Holy Spirit as well.