>If the sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests is uniquely evil, if it was partly the product of very particular church traditions and beliefs, the conspiracy of silence that enabled it reflects familiar organizational failings: the institutional reflexives that helped church leaders conceal and collaborate in child abuse are distressingly common. Virtually any group or institution, especially one that prides itself on its own essential, even transcendent goodness, inevitably poses moral challenges to its members as well as leaders: when the group is threatened from within by malfeasance (common in groups of mere human beings, especially those who imagine themselves infallible) individual members have to decide whether to join in inevitable efforts to cover it up.
Before anyone accuses me of drawing moral equivalencies between rampant pedophilia and the ordinary ethical evasions of associational and institutional life, let me repeat and explicitly clarify: I am not comparing the harm and horrors of covering up child abuse to the harm of, say, covering up a petty embezzlement to avoid embarrassment. I am comparing the institutional dynamics that allow people to rationalize tolerating and concealing mistakes and misconduct -- from actual or metaphoric misdemeanors to serious felonies. As I observed in Worst Instincts, my book about malfeasance at the ACLU, when a belief in institutional virtue calcifies into an article of faith -- immutable and not contingent on behavior -- then the harm of grievous as well as petty misconduct is readily minimized (or denied), the cost of acknowledging it is maximized, and members can tell themselves that concealing it is not self-serving cowardice but unselfish service to the institution, and, by extension, the greater good. Virtue is presumed to lie in protecting the institution, instead of protecting its individual casualties. Loyalty to the institution is elevated over loyalty to the institution's ideals.