The Catholic Church Isn't the Only Institution to Close Ranks in a Scandal
The police, the NHS, the army – all suffer from a culture of denial. Yet for democracy's sake, they must reform and revive
'We need a change of culture.' Whenever I hear this I think of the Catholic church, the army, the NHS, the police or any number of British institutions. They all share a curious lack of concern for how the outside world sees their internal practices and procedures. After some scandal they may agree to a change of culture, but it is usually code for the opposite.
There is little new in this week's United Nations report on the handling by the Roman Catholic church of sex attacks by priests. Nor is there much new in other running horrors, such as the army's alleged tolerance of rape, the NHS's hiding of hospital mistreatment, or the deaths of juvenile offenders in custody. In each case institutions seemed to assume a degree of immunity from accountability, which government for a while concedes. The contrast is stark with the crown prosecution service's running obsession with celebrity sex, which came to grief in the acquittal of William Roache.
The UN claims that years of Catholic sex abuse and concealment have gone largely uncorrected. On the radio on Wednesday a victim accused an unnamed priest of having regularly raped her and others as children, on the grounds that it was "God's punishment for their sinfulness". Despite constant pleas for his removal, he is still in office.
The UN accuses the Vatican hierarchy of "consistently placing the reputation of the church and the protection of the perpetrators above children's best interests". For good measure it also urges Rome to change its stance on abortion and contraception, and to tone down attacks on homosexuality.
Such recommendations from an international body are hard to evaluate since, as with the UN report on British housing, they seem to express little beyond the personal politics of officials. They have nothing to do with the under-employed organisation's core purpose. If the UN means to venture into the social impact of religious dogma it must presumably address the victims of other faiths.
I am sure most Catholics are appalled by the revelations of abuse by their clergy, and by the blind eye turned to them by elements within the church leadership. Whether they accept that their church can no longer be left to set its own house in order is another matter. On the issue of sex abuse it must sooner or later be confronted by the forces of law and order. Likewise its dogma on birth control is being widely challenged by democracy.
Meanwhile other institutions should beware of smugness. Most of those now in the spotlight are governed by hierarchies also committed to hidebound practices and doctrines. In Britain a young female soldier committed suicide after her accusations of rape were ignored by a macho army culture. In mid-Staffordshire a woman was ostracised and driven from home for revealing dreadful patient neglect and maltreatment. Equally grim is the figure of 163 deaths in 10 years of often mentally ill young people in prison.
These institutions are peculiar in all being vulnerable to a built-in authoritarianism. Not just popes and bishops but doctors, lawyers, soldiers and prison governors work in a framework of professional obedience. They defer to the discipline of their culture. When challenged for wrongdoing they instinctively close ranks and defend their calling fiercely against attack. The NHS is currently facing almost £20bn in outstanding malpractice claims from its victims. Its culture is clearly not theirs.
In studying the inner workings of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville stressed the importance of "intermediate institutions" as bulwarks of pluralism and freedom against a state of atomised voters. He cited his own Catholic church, along with political, commercial and professional associations. He suggested they should stand as a countervailing force against state power, like that once wielded by the aristocracy against the crown. They would dilute the "soft tyranny of the majority".
This quasi-constitutional status has long been used to justify the arm's-length self-regulation of priests, doctors, lawyers, soldiers and even of the media and trade unions. They regard themselves as the wildcats of democracy, their professional groups roaming the political landscape and holding government in some sort of check. In the case of the army and police, they claim near absolute power over the liberty of citizens. They protect their members against the tempests of the market and the tides of public opinion.
In The Doctor's Dilemma ,George Bernard Shaw called such institutions "conspiracies against the laity". Anyone who peers inside the entrails of a modern British hospital knows what he means. When the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, calls for a "change of NHS culture", he might as well have been challenging the meistersingers of Nuremberg. The "royal colleges" are in league with a managerial class now steeped in the target-driven centralism that Hunt regards as a template for "public service". Their culture will not change until his does.
The Catholic church is thus not unique. It is another institutional dinosaur whose limbs are too slow and too distant for its head properly to control. In a democratic world it regards itself as a surviving monarchy, just as the army regards itself as a nobility and the professions as aristocracies. All guard their Spanish practices and hold themselves aloof from public opinion.
Not a week now passes without another tract on the decay of democracy and a woeful comment on the power of the state. We therefore need De Tocqueville's "mediating associations" as much as ever, to pluralise and diversify the body politic. But for them to do this job, they require moral authority capable of facing up to that which government derives from its electoral mandate. Their governance, like their members' behaviour, must be as accountable and transparent as the state they claim to challenge. That is not so at present.
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