We too easily accommodate evil and corruption. We adapt to it. We laugh it off. We shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do. It is often easier to be flexible. And sometimes it is wise to ignore things over which we have no control.
But when evil is left alone it festers. If it is not confronted, it becomes habitual. If it is not extirpated, it metastasizes and weaves its way into everything.
This is the lesson of the events unfolding in Washington, Rome, Florida, and elsewhere. Michael Cohen has been testifying about corruption in the Trump organization, including the Stormy Daniels affair. The Vatican has been discussing the plague of priests who rape children. And billionaires have been busted in Florida for soliciting prostitution
It is the systematic nature of these problems that is outrageous. Religious folks might say that the second sin is worse than the first. In non-Biblical language, we say the cover-up is worse than the crime. The original sin might be explained as a violent, spontaneous, stupid, or ignorant act. But those who cover up know what’s going on. They make conscious choices that accommodate evil.
This is true whether we are talking about pedophile priests, corporate scandals, political corruption, or sex trafficking rings. Systematic abuse is facilitated by a dedicated group of accomplices, who know that what they are doing is wrong.
Consider the pervasiveness of religious sexual abuse. It is not only the Catholics who have a problem with sex crime. The Southern Baptists are responding to a report that hundreds of children have been abused in that denomination. And in Fresno an Anglican priest has been accused of sexual predation.
I could not discover a tally of the victims of religious sex abuse. But we can estimate. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury concluded that over 1,000 people were victimized by some 300 Catholic priests during the past 50 years. Pennsylvania has about 4 percent of the U.S. population. Extrapolate and add in the Southern Baptists and other denominations and we end up with tens of thousands of victims. And that’s just in the United States.
Somebody had to know what was going on. The same is true of the Florida sex-trafficking ring. There was a whole network of pimps and accomplices, who exploited sex workers locked in massage parlors. This includes the drivers and chauffeurs, the landlords and delivery men. Lots of people had to have known that something sleazy was going on.
A similar account could be offered of the powerful men exposed in “me too” moments and salacious reports of sexual predation from R. Kelly to D. Trump, from Larry Nassar to Jerry Sandusky. People don’t get away with this kind of stuff without a group of accomplices facilitating and covering-up.
Some may want to blame the permissive and hypersexual culture of the modern world. Others will blame big money or moral relativism. But systematic corruption is primarily about structures of power. When American slave masters raped their slaves, the problem was not a sexual one. It was a problem rooted in the evil system of slavery.
That structural evil was eradicated. But there is still a network of power that traffics in exploitation, that pays off accusers or tries to discredit and frighten victims. Beyond that there is a larger group of accomplices that turns a blind eye and facilitates corruption with winks and nods and shoulder shrugs.
The cure for this problem is to overcome this willful blindness. Lies and secrecy must be exposed. Networks of power must be criticized and where necessary dismantled. Evil loses it power when there is transparency and fresh air.
This means it is healthy to be skeptical of the powerful. Priests and billionaires are simply human beings. They are as flawed and pathetic as we all are. This is also true of coaches, doctors, teachers, and celebrities. No human being has any special power that lifts them above the law. No one — not even the Pope or the president — deserves our trust and respect before they earn it. They earn it by demonstrating wisdom and virtue. And institutions of power gain our trust by ending the corruption and the cover-ups.