In an excellent article on Religion Dispatches that can be found here, Patricia Miller asks about the forty years of abuse of boys in a Bavarian boys choir in a school lead by the now deceased Johann Meier. Both Ratzinger brothers had ecclesiastical supervision of the diocese containing the school, with the elder Ratzinger later heading the CDF in Rome under Pope John Paul II before himself becoming Pope Benedict XVI. The article asks excellent questions, and I commend it to you. I would like to pose a related question that I believe most of us will have to ask ourselves more than once in our lives. That question is, “what do we do when we suspect something is very wrong in an area of our responsibility?”
I suspect that most of us, when confronted with possible serious problems in some area of or lives – whether personal or professional – believe that it cannot be true. I believe that is both an honest sentiment and a self-protective one. On the other hand, I have heard the story of dozens of child abuse survivors who, when they told their story to their mothers, received the immediate response that “it certainly wasn’t Uncle Bob,” and Uncle Bob was indeed the perpetrator. While that evidence is anecdotal, it’s telling. How many of us, upon hearing of the ending of a relationship between people we know, have to admit we aren’t surprised – even if our first reaction was surprise? How many people who have stolen money from their employers should have been caught years earlier, but their supervisors couldn’t believe that they were stealing and so ignored strong evidence to the contrary? How many people, faced with incontrovertible evidence that their spouse is unfaithful, refuse to see the truth? I believe the answer is that quite a few of us do exactly that.
How much responsibility to we take for the misbehavior and mistakes of those close to us? Again, I suspect quite a few of us take a great deal of responsibility for these things that we cannot possibly control or have knowledge of. Other times we close our eyes because we cannot bear to see the truth – but is the truth really legitimately unbearable? Can we see that not only does our denial not solve the problem, but it makes us culpable? Most of us will thankfully never have to face a scandal on the scale of the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, but most of us will have to deal with a very similar issue on a smaller scale. How will we respond? Will we respond differently if someone we really like is doing something wrong than we will if someone we find difficult is acting out?
It’s time to grow up. It’s time to learn to put our feelings, whether positive or negative, for a person aside when evaluating their conduct. If it’s wrong to rob a bank, then it’s wrong to rob a bank no matter how we feel about the person behind the gun. The fact that doing the right thing is difficult doesn’t make it the wrong thing, it just makes it difficult. Even if we have delayed acting because we ignored evidence, there is no shame in saying “I missed this until now,” but there is indeed shame in moving from ignorance to cover up. When our need to avoid discomfort becomes more important that our need to do the right thing, we are in deep trouble and the results cannot be good.