Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Institutional Corruption Meets Civil Society — Finally

Ireland is just about the most loyal Catholic country you can imagine.

Until today, that is. A new government report implicates the Catholic Church not just in a pattern of rape and torture of children that went on for years, but in a coverup effort that reaches all the way to the Vatican and continues to this day. The prime minister’s speech today spoke of “a frankly brazen disregard for protecting children,” of “delinquency and arrogance,” “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism,” and “narcissism.” These are not the words you would expect to hear from Ireland to describe the Catholic Church. It would be unthinkable a decade ago for an Irish politician to suggest that “the Vatican needs to get its house in order.” Today’s headlines were accurate enough in describing the speech as an “unprecedented attack” on the church. But the government in Ireland is not sticking its neck out in trying to cut through the Catholic Church’s stonewalling, or in brushing aside the church’s response so far, which at its heart is a plea to be seen as above the law. The government’s statements reflect the thoughts of the general public in Ireland. This is not really a tale of a battle between one powerful institution and another, but between civil society and institutional corruption.

And the consequences for the Catholic Church are not just rhetorical. A proposed law will subject people who work with children to closer scrutiny. A consequence of this law will be that a significant fraction of church employees will be found to be not fit for their posts.

This turning point in Ireland comes not so long after a similar moment in Brazil, though the issues in Ireland cut deeper than a case of one innocent rape victim condemned to die by heartless church officials in Brazil. It is fair to say that if the Catholic Church’s standing is eroding in places like Brazil and Ireland, it is eroding everywhere.

And this is not just a story about the Catholic Church. A similar story outline is unfolding today across the Irish Sea, where the corrupt global institution trying to place itself above the law and to impede a criminal inquiry is News Corp., and where the support the institution was so certain it had a mere nine days ago, which was said to include the prime minister and most of parliament, seems to have evaporated. And while executives are focused on the problems in the United Kingdom, the criminal probe of News Corp. has spread to the United States and Australia.

I don’t believe either of these stories could have taken place last year. That they are taking place now is a sign of a broader trend, which I have written about separately, of people taking institutional power less seriously. People used to fear the Pope and Rupert Murdoch. Now Murdoch is going to great pains to try to position himself as a law-abiding member of society, and politicians are asking the Pope to do the same. That is no small change.