What explains the moral probity of the Italian clergy?

Sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the US, and the church’s decades of serving the perpetrators parish after parish of unwarned victims, has bankrupted dioceses, driven bishops from office, and devastated thousands of the faithful. Remarkably, there has been almost no such history in Italy. Obviously, the Catholic hierarchy in that country comprises nothing but righteous and upright men, not a pedophile nor a predator among them, ever.

I guess…though if an Italian priest were to be charged with abuse, and a few have, the entire episode (victims, witnesses, accusee, and all) would immediately be covered by the most absolute internal secrecy under pain of excommunication, precluding any possibility of criminal prosecution or public notice, so we would know nothing about it. The same secrecy rules obtained in the US, but broke eventually under the weight of the secular criminal and civil law, and an independent press in a country only about a quarter Catholic and not party to a Lateran Treaty.

The Italian press has been completely supine on this issue (as here, for example), and when the occasional light is shone from outside, especially on the explicit policy of secrecy the church has imposed wherever it can get away with it, the result is an avalanche of namecalling and abuse, but as far as I can tell, no substantive refutation of the basic facts and policy. The Italian church’s view, in summary, is that attention to the possibility of priestly misconduct is hurtful to the accused priests (false accusations of this kind are in fact very rare).

The pope was in charge of this mess in his previous job, and it’s remarkable that in his current US visit, he kept bringing up the pedophilia scandal and wringing his hands about it. But a new high in what I can only read as the oiliest, cynical, chutzpah was surely achieved when he asked the faithful to reach out to the victims, something completely impossible in Italy because there are no victims to be found.

I’m astonished at the free pass he got from the US media, who seem to have never, in this entire visit, raised the linked questions (if not to his flacks, in analysis):

“If the church has completely protected Italian youth from abuse by priests, why were these wonderful methods not provided to the American bishops, and American children left at risk? And if it hasn’t, how big is the problem there? And why should we believe the answer, as long as Cardinal Law, the apostle of coverup, wilful ignorance, and mendacity, has been swept into the comforting embrace of the Vatican with about a dozen important jobs? And since you bring it up, how is anyone supposed to reach out as you ask, if the church’s policy continues to be that they remain unknown, invisible, and silent?”

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.