I’ve often written in Commonweal of the “cover-up” of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But I like a more subtle term that I heard in a Fordham University event featuring some of the most knowledgeable experts on the church’s crisis: “motivated blindness.”
Karen Terry, principal investigator in the John Jay College studies of clergy sexual abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, cited it as one of the key factors that inhibited the church from responding properly to abuse victims. She was drawing from a 2016 report that Donald Palmer, a professor at the University of California at Davis, researched for Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Palmer wrote that “motivated blindness” means “individuals tend to overlook or minimise the significance of events that would have negative consequences for them if fully appreciated.” He is in turn drawing on research by Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School, who wrote in 2014:
When we have a vested self-interest in a situation, we have difficulty approaching it without bias, no matter how well-calibrated our moral compasses may be. Motivated blindness helps explain why we want to think the best of our family members, friends, and colleagues and are disinclined to speak against those with influence in our offices and workplaces. It could also explain why, for decades, high-ranking officials in the Catholic Church failed to investigate complaints of child sexual abuse by priests, and why some Penn State University officials failed to report evidence of similar crimes committed by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to the police. Because of their biases, some of these officials challenged the accounts of victims and witnesses, minimized the severity of the abuse, and overestimated their ability to address the crises on their own.
Speaking at a symposium held in Manhattan on March 26 at the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, Terry said that while the church has made meaningful change since the first of two John Jay reports was issued in 2002, it has been “slow and inconsistent.” In the past, “little attention was given to the harm that was caused to victims,” she said, adding that studies have found a moral failure “not just because of the harm to the thousands of youths but because the priest abusers and others who knew about or suspected that this abuse was taking place failed to live up to the most basic of their pastoral commitments, which is the care of the most vulnerable in the community.” That’s “motivated blindness.”