Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Regensburg Domspatzen: Systemic Abuse of Kids in an Established Religious Institution

The utility from beautiful music for many does not justify the physical and sexual abuse of a relative few. Even though utilitarianism goes by the motto, the greatest pleasure (and least pain) for the greatest number, the severity of the pain to a few can, I submit, outweigh a more widespread, yet relatively superficial, pleasure for others. Surely the intensity of pleasure and pain must enter into the ethical calculus. I have in mind here the Regensburg Domspatzen, a Roman Catholic boys choir, in the E.U. state of Germany. This case points to the default power of established institutions and a religious psychology.

On July 18, 2017, Ulrich Weber, an outside lawyer announced the findings of his investigation. He found 547 cases of plausible physical abuse, 67 of which involved sexual abuse.[1] The abuse took place while Georg Ratzinger was the choir’s music director—from 1964 to 1994. His brother would be the Pope from 2005 to 2013. The presumption in terms of accountability was that the Church would police itself according to its Canon Law. However, in this case the personal conflict of interest should have sent the case to the local police, yet this was not the case. Instead, that pope threatened priests with excommunication should they contact the public authorities. Cut off from heaven for aiding accountability concerning people who had abused children! The power to excommunicate itself can thus be viewed as culpable. Moreover, the presumptuousness, including the accompanying blind-spots, that religious authority can engender and perpetuate is worthy of note.

One rather obvious take-away from this case is that the investigation of illegal act should be left to local police rather than religious organizations. Put another way, canon law does not trump criminal law. A second, less obvious, point regards the ethics of the sheer inertia of established societal institutions such as large, very old, religious organizations. Like a speeding ball in the void of outer space, such an institution can go through time seamlessly without virtually any resistance to slow it down, regardless of how unethical or even illegal the internal acts and cover-ups may be. This disconnect for clergy and members alike, wherein they continue as they had as if nothing had changed, can be reckoned as a sort of cognitive pathology in itself akin to or abetted by denial. Members as a whole continue to contribute money, and virtually no one resigns from the organization as an ethical protest or personal stand of sorts. In terms of organization theory, a disconnect between an organization and the wider society can be expected to impair the organization in at least some respects, not limited to diminished reputational capital. In terms of organizational life-cycles, such a period should be one of significant contraction, rather than steady-state. I submit that in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, the combination of being such an established (i.e., entrenched) institution and the psychology of religious denial block the natural “ebb and flow” that both in theory and practice pertains to organizations generally.

[1] Melissa Eddy, “’Culture of Silence’ Abetted Abuse of at Least 547 German Choir Boys, Inquiry Finds,” The New York Times, July 18, 2017.