My beef with “institutional sin”

My beef with “institutional sin” August 11, 2018

Regular readers will know that I have more ideas than I do patience for digging out the relevant links to document my claim.

But here is my complaint:

I dislike the idea of “institutional sin” – that is, the concept that sinfulness can reside in bureaucratic structures.

And I dislike it because it exempts those who ought to bear responsibility, from genuinely taking responsibility.

And we’re seeing it again with the U.S. bishops, with respect to the twin scandals of McCarrick and reports of rampant sex and other misbehavior in seminaries.  We are getting mea culpas that follow the old, tired pattern:  “We, as an institution, apologize for our collective failings, and for having not put in place the right sort of bureaucracy to have avoided this.”

And then we get, again, the repeated claims:  “Duh, I didn’t know anything myself personally; I’m just apologizing on behalf of the bishops collectively.”

So, look, maybe it is true.  Maybe bishops are so focused on their own dioceses, and have no clue about anything else that happens.  Maybe the stories about seminaries being hotbeds of gay sex are all just lies, or confined to so few seminaries that it’s credible that virtually no one knew.

But as long as the confessions remain the bland sort of “institutional sins” — as long as no bishop, no one at the seminaries, is willing to say, “I repent; I knew of these things but didn’t want to risk the ire of others, didn’t want to hamper my career, didn’t want to impact the reputation of the church” we’re trapped in not knowing whether any of the bishops steadfastly denying that they ever knew anything that they turned a blind eye to, are being truthful.

And I know that this ends up sounding like a demand for Stalinesque show trials, but I don’t see a path forward if all we get is bland mamby-pamby “we’ll make up a new process” over and over again.  It was not “the process” that sinned.  It was individual people who sinned.


Image:; By Copyright World Economic Forum ( by Andy Mettler [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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