Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State and the Legionaries of Christ


E.D. Kain writing in Forbes says:
Institutions always lean toward self-preservation. When a member of an institution has done something wrong, the instinct of other members within that institution is to sweep it under the proverbial rug as quickly as possible. When the institution is at risk, every member feels at risk. And when the institution in question is opaque and hierarchical, that risk only becomes greater.

He goes on to add:
 So we see sexual abuse scandals in both the Penn State case and the Catholic Church that are frighteningly similar.....The secrecy and the cult-like power that Degollado (Fr. Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ)  held over his followers made sexual abuse that much more likely to occur and made his victims and witnesses to his crimes that much less likely to come forward.

Of course there is some truth to the analogy. However, I am more inclined to think that the problem of child-abuse and subsequent cover-up is not specific to any one institution, religious congregation or church. The phenomenon seems to be more widespread than we would care to believe and is certainly not exclusive to the Catholic Church. So, E..D. Kain, by dragging the Catholic Church and the Legionaries of Christ into his article stretches the analogy too much for my liking.

There is a lesson to be learned from the scandal caused by Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ and it is is reinforced by the current scandal at Penn State. Vatican prelates, bishops, and representatives of "authority" including corporate boards of directors, university trustees and public officials would do well to never allow any one leader or executive to loom larger than the institution he or she represents. When the reputation of a leader (executive, teacher, coach, priest, and etc). becomes synonymous with the reputation of the organization we should be extra vigilant. This is what happened at Penn State, where Joe Paterno became the public face of the university, and it also happened with the Legionaries of Christ where Fr. Maciel dominated the lives of his followers.

The current scandal at Penn State must be heart breaking to everyone affiliated with the university - student, alumni, faculty, staff, and administration. The child victims who were allegedly abused by an assistant coach, have suffered the most.

Despite this scandal, no doubt there is far more right with Penn State than there is wrong. I think the same holds true for the Legionaries of Christ. Penn State used the power of football and the financial resources it produced to transform itself from a sleepy agricultural school into a top-notch research university. The Legion of Christ is in the process of trying to build on its successful, but highly flawed beginnings, to become a more mainstream force for good.  Neither institution is inherently doomed because of the faults of any one individual.

It's tempting to throw stones at both Penn State and the Legionaries. What is more important is to eliminate the culture of complicity that encouraged people to look the other way when they became aware of abuse. Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, much to the consternation of the powers that be in the Catholic Church, made it his mission to atone for the pedophile crimes of Irish priests: he  met with, apologized to, and acknowledged publicly the shame that the church inflicted on the innocents. Both the Legionaries and Penn State would do well to learn from his example.

If a scandal like this could happen at Penn State, it could happen anywhere. This thought ought to give every one of us, especially senior leaders pause to consider: What might be happening on my watch? What would I do differently?