Home/Rod Dreher/How Bad Leadership Destroys Institutions

How Bad Leadership Destroys Institutions

Delivering a slap to decadent GOP leadership (Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

I liked Peter Lawler’s direct, hard-hitting explanation of how Trump has taken over the GOP. He cannot stand Trump, considering him “not fit to be president,” and is beyond depressed at what he foresees will be “a Democratic rout” this fall. The last lines were especially on point:

I’m far less angry at Trump or Trump supporters than I am at those who created the vacuum he so readily filled. His was a hostile takeover of a decadent party. More power to him, as they say.

This is exactly right, I think. The Republican Party’s leadership class is getting what it brought on itself.

I was thinking about the GOP’s self-inflicted wounds this weekend when I read this story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about how the most recent Catholic sex abuse scandals in Pennsylvania have tipped the legislature, in a way that portends financial catastrophe for the Catholic Church. Excerpt:

Rep. Thomas Caltagirone was disgusted. The veteran Democrat from Reading had been one of the Catholic Church’s staunchest political allies for years, but by March he had hit a breaking point.

A state grand jury had exposed clergy sex abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and a bishop who used an internal payment chart to dole out money, correlating to the degree of the victim’s abuse. This, after Jerry Sandusky and two damning grand jury reports in a decade about predator priests in Philadelphia.

Then came another grand jury bombshell from Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane: Leaders in the Franciscan order had allegedly enabled a friar to abuse scores of children at a Catholic high school in Johnstown and remain free to roam as recently as January 2013.

“Enough is enough,” Caltagirone told his colleagues the day Kane announced charges. “We need to enact new laws that will send the strongest message possible: If you commit heinous crimes against children, if you cover up for pedophiles, if you lurk in the shadows waiting for time to run out, we are coming for you.”

His proclamation marked an unexpected shift from a key legislator long resistant to changing the law. It helped persuade others to pass a House bill that for the first time would let victims abused decades ago sue their attackers and institutions that supervised them.

The Catholic Church’s lobbyists in the state legislature have been working hard for a long time to tamp down any legislative attempts to loosen the statute of limitations on such suits, fearing that it would open the floodgates of abuse claims from middle-aged victims. And the lobbyists have been successful — until now:

Insiders said the church’s efforts in the House were drowned out by the revelations of abuse in Johnstown-Altoona. Horrified by the disclosures, Christopher Winters, chief of staff to Caltagirone, said some longtime defenders of the church felt betrayed.

“The grand jury report portrayed something completely different than what we were told sitting at the table with lobbyists for the Catholic Conference,” he said. “That they were handling things.”

Whole thing here. Fourteen years after the Boston revelations ripped open the Church’s dark underbelly, Catholic legislators and others sympathetic to the Church had been able to protect it. But now, it appears, they believe they were lied to by the Church’s own representatives. And, of course, there is little to no accountability within the Church for bishops who have so badly served their people and their God.

You might remember the stormy exit former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating made from the National Review Board the US Catholic bishops set up in the wake of Boston. He had been tapped to lead the board, and was happy to serve, to help clean up his own church. But what he saw in the year he served before quitting (here is his own account, from 2003) caused him to publicly denounce the institutional Church’s leaders for behaving like the mafia, not men of God.

In my own personal case, it was betrayal after betrayal — including one that came very close to my own family — caused my wife and me to conclude that we could not trust the Church on these matters, ever, nor would we ever feel at ease with our three children there. Not after all these lies. It was not long after that that we began looking for the way out. We couldn’t take it anymore.

I don’t want to discuss the merits or lack thereof of events that happened in my own life a decade ago (and if you want to start that discussion, I won’t post your comments). But here’s the thing: that was a decade ago. It beggars belief that there are still grotesque abuse stories and cover-ups to be uncovered in the Catholic Church. If the Church in Pennsylvania loses this fight in the legislature, the resulting lawsuits will likely devastate the Church financially — and that means parishes, schools, and other institutions that are a big part of the lives of real people, people who had nothing at all to do with the abuse and the cover-up, but who have been paying a steep price, and will continue to do so, through no fault of their own.

Because they were badly led, and because their leaders cannot seem to understand what they (or their predecessors) did, and what it means.

Now, a church, to me, is an incomparably more important institution to human flourishing than a political party. Souls aren’t lost because the GOP leadership class piloted the party into an iceberg by thinking itself invulnerable. Still, the characteristic failures of the leadership classes in both the Roman Catholic and Republican institutions are the same.

Adding to Pennsylvania’s woes are allegations contained in court papers that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, and his staff, knew about Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation much earlier than had been previously revealed — as far back as the 1970s! Penn State today conceded that its massive payout to Sandusky’s victims included a settlement with a victim who was abused in 1971. For at least forty years, Sandusky was raping kids while on Penn State’s coaching staff. The university says that the claim by the university’s insurer, that Paterno had been told as early as 1976 about Sandusky’s behavior, is not established fact, and that people shouldn’t be so quick to believe allegations.

Yes, well, in any case, the university is hoping to be reimbursed by its insurer for the over $60 million it has paid out in settlements to Sandusky’s victims. The insurance company claims in the court case that it shouldn’t have to pay, because the university knew about Sandusky, and said nothing. The new revelation emerged out of that dispute, which has yet to be settled.

Sixty million dollars is a lot of faculty salaries and scholarships. But the credibility of the university’s leadership, including the moral status of the legendary Coach Paterno, is priceless. And it’s gone.

No wonder people are so skeptical of institutions these days. We cannot live without institutions, but in some of our major ones, there has been very damn little accountability for spectacular wrongdoing. Nobody at senior levels of the Republican Party has ever owned up to the massive failure that was Iraq (only Donald Trump dared to tell that truth on the debate stage). Wall Street bigs got away with what they did that led up to the crash of 2008 — and the politicians that enabled them don’t seem to have suffered much. In fact, the presumptive Democratic nominee, the wife of one of them, remains today one of Wall Street’s best friends. The Church — well, what else needs to be said? The media? Let Ben Rhodes brag about how he and others in the White House manipulate reporters, who know very little about what they’re covering.

Trump and the “burn it all down” right-wing Jacobinism didn’t come from nowhere. Nor did the eagerness of a shocking number of Democratic primary voters to pull the lever for an elderly socialist (!) instead of one of their party establishment’s most enduring standard-bearers.

I often wonder if  Trump is only the beginning of the unraveling.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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